Russia has expelled 60 US diplomats and announced it would eject scores from other countries that have joined London and Washington in censuring Moscow over the poisoning of a spy.
The US ambassador was also ordered to shut the consulate in St Petersburg, in Russia’s retaliation for the biggest expulsion of diplomats since the Cold War.
However, the response, which precisely mirrored steps taken by Western governments against Russian diplomats, appeared to show Moscow was not seeking to escalate the stand-off over the nerve agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in an English city.
Britain has blamed Russia for the poisoning, and has been backed up by dozens of Western countries which have ordered Russian diplomats to leave. Moscow denies involvement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing a stuttering economy and an unusual show of Western unity that included even states traditionally friendly towards Moscow, appeared to have stuck to the diplomatic playbook with the symmetrical response.
US ambassador John Hunstman was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry on Thursday and told that 60 diplomats from US missions had a week to leave Russia, as Washington had expelled 60 Russians.
At a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Huntsman was also told that the US consulate in St Petersburg would be closed, a like-for-like retaliation for the US closure of Russia’s consulate in the US city of Seattle.
“As for the other countries, everything will also be symmetrical in terms of the number of people from their diplomatic missions who will be leaving Russia, and for now that’s pretty much it,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
That approach will mean that, among other countries affected, Australia will see two diplomats sent home, France, Germany and Poland would each have four of their diplomats in Moscow sent home, Ukraine would forfeit 13 diplomats, and Denmark, Albania and Spain would each have two of their embassy staff expelled.
Russia has already retaliated in kind after Britain initially expelled 23 diplomats.
Skripal, 66, a double agent who was swapped in a spy exchange deal in 2010 and went to live in England, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, were found unconscious on a public bench in a shopping centre in Salisbury on March 4.
Former Russian military intelligence officer Skripal remains in a critical condition but his daughter is getting better, the hospital where they are being treated said on Thursday.
British authorities say a Soviet-era nerve toxin called Novichok was used in an attempt to murder the pair.
Announcing the expulsions of Western diplomats on Thursday, Lavrov said the Skripal poisoning was being exploited by an “Anglo-Saxon axis forcing everyone to follow an anti-Russian path”.