MOSCOW (AP) — Russia announced the expulsion of more than 150 diplomats, including 60 Americans, on Thursday and said it was closing a U.S. consulate in retaliation for the wave of Western expulsions of Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in Britain, a tit-for-tat response that intensified the Kremlin’s rupture with the United States and Europe.
The Russian move came as a hospital treating Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, said the woman was improving rapidly and was now in stable condition, though her father remained in critical condition.
The Skripals were found unconscious and critically ill in the English city of Salisbury on March 4. British authorities blamed Russia for poisoning them with a military-grade nerve agent, accusations Russia has vehemently denied.
Two dozen countries, including the U.S., many EU nations and NATO, have ordered more than 150 Russian diplomats out this week in a show of solidarity with Britain — a massive action unseen even at the height of the Cold War.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at news conference Thursday that Moscow will expel the same number of diplomats from each of those countries in retaliation.
U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman was summoned to the Foreign Ministry while Lavrov was speaking, where he was handed notice that Russia is responding quid pro quo to the U.S. decision to order 60 Russian diplomats out.
In a statement, Huntsman said there was “no justification” for the move and that it shows Moscow isn’t interested in dialogue with the United States about important matters.
“Russia should not be acting like a victim,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Later, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Russia’s action was “not unanticipated,” but she said the retaliation by Moscow “marks a further deterioration in the United States-Russia relationship.”
The Foreign Ministry said the U.S. diplomats, including 58 from the embassy in Moscow and two from the consulate in Yekaterinburg, must leave Russia by April 5. It added that the U.S. must leave its consulate in St. Petersburg no later than Saturday.
The ministry warned that if the U.S. takes further “hostile actions” against Russian missions, Russia will respond in kind.
“We invite the U.S. authorities who are encouraging a slanderous campaign against our country to come back to their senses and stop thoughtless actions to destroy bilateral relations,” it said.
Lavrov emphasized that the expulsions followed “brutal pressure” from the U.S. and Britain, which forced their allies to “follow the anti-Russian course.”
Britain’s national security adviser Mark Sedwill told reporters during a trip to Washington that the attack was part of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” that operates below the level of armed conflict.
The coordinated expulsions of Russian intelligence officers, he said, were a “coherent approach by the Western alliance to a range of aggressive Russian behavior, of which the attack in Salisbury was just the latest, obviously very acute, example.”
Lavrov said that Moscow called a meeting Wednesday of the secretariat of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to discuss the case.
Meanwhile, Salisbury NHS Trust, which oversees the hospital where the Skripals are being treated, said Thursday that 33-year-old Yulia is “improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition. Her condition is now stable.”
“She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day,” said Dr. Christine Blanshard, medical director at Salisbury District Hospital.
SergeiSkripal, 66, remains in critical condition, the hospital said.</p>