Russia ordered Britain Saturday to cut more than 50 people from its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia.
The latest demand from Russia is in addition to the retaliatory move both countries took earlier this month when they each ordered 23 of the other's diplomats expelled.
On Friday, the Kremlin gave marching orders to 59 diplomats from 23 Western countries in retaliation for the collective Western expulsion of Russian diplomats.
Britain’s diplomatic staff appears to have been targeted with the largest cut, with the British ambassador being told he has a month to reduce his staff to the exact same number as the Russian diplomatic corps in Britain.
Meanwhile, Russia conducted two test-firings of its newly-developed intercontinental ballistic missile Friday, the country's Defense Ministry said in a tweet, linking to a video of a Sarmat being launched. The latest ICBM is set to replace Russia’s current Soviet-era missile Voevoda.
After his meetings, German Ambassador Rudiger von Fritsch said Russia had failed to answer questions about the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, but added that Berlin remained open to dialogue with Moscow.
The ministry also handed a note of protest to Britain’s envoy, Laurie Bristow, over what the Russians termed London’s “provocative actions” and its claims that the Kremlin approved the poisoning in Britain of Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia.
The tit-for-tat measure by Moscow was expected and come days after 29 Western countries expelled 145 Russian diplomats, most suspected by there host countries of being undeclared spies. NATO also expelled ten diplomats.
Britain and Russia already had expelled 23 of each other's diplomats earlier this month — the demand for a further reduction in Britain’s diplomatic contingent is an addition. But it was not immediately clear if the instruction would translate into a large cut in British staff numbers.
A spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office said Moscow was in flagrant breach of international law over the attempted killing of the former spy.
The United States on Thursday declared there is no justification for Russia’s retaliatory expulsion of American diplomats. The White House has said the like-for-like expulsions by Moscow “marks a further deterioration” of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
“The expulsion of undeclared Russian intelligence officers by the United States and more than two dozen partner nations and NATO allies earlier this week was an appropriate response to the Russian attack on the soil of the United Kingdom. Russia’s response was not unanticipated, and the United States will deal with it," the statement reads.
The Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Heather Nauert, also criticized Moscow’s actions, announced earlier in the day by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“Russia should not be acting like a victim,” the State Department spokeswoman added, remarking that the only real victims are those poisoned and inconvenienced by the March 4 release of a nerve agent in the British city of Salisbury.
Lavrov announced the expulsion of 60 U.S. diplomats in response to Washington ordering the departure of the same number of Russian envoys.
Russia also is closing the U.S. consulate in the city of Saint Petersburg, ordering it to cease operations in two days.
“It's clear from the list provided to us that the Russian Federation is not interested in a dialogue on issues that matter to our two countries,” Nauert told reporters at Thursday’s State Department briefing. “We reserve the right to respond.”
“The United States is better off with fewer Russian spies,” Nauert told reporters at Thursday’s State Department briefing.
All of the Americans declared persona non grata — 58 diplomats in Moscow and two officials of the consulate in Yekaterinburg — are to leave Russia by April 5.
Former spy poisoning
Moscow denies responsibility for the nerve-agent attack. Russian officials have offered a variety of explanations for what may have happened in Salisbury. Among them they have alleged that the attack was carried out by British intelligence services in order to discredit Russia. Britain dismisses that allegation.
Expressing concern about deteriorating relations between the two nuclear powers, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is calling for Washington and Moscow to discuss their differences.
"During the Cold War there were mechanisms of communication and control to avoid the escalation of incidents, to make sure that things would not get out of control when tensions would rise. Those mechanisms have been dismantled," Guterres told reporters. “I do believe that mechanisms of this sort are necessary again.”
U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman — who was summoned to the foreign ministry on Thursday — told VOA that it is “our desire, of course is to maintain dialogue on the issues that matter the most. Issues like strategic stability and arms control, which are not just a U.S.-Russia set of issues, but indeed impact the stability and the well-being of the entire globe.”
Just hours before being summoned to the foreign ministry, Huntsman told VOA that one of his biggest regrets through all the challenges he has faced in his job was seeing the U.S. diplomatic cut by 727 last year on the orders of the Kremlin. That, he said, had severely impacted the embassy’s cultural outreach programs as well as the processing of visas. He worried visa processing would be even more deeply impacted, if Russia went ahead with further expulsions.
He said: “Any Russian citizen who has been to the United States comes back transformed forever; and any American who comes here returns transformed, that is just the way it is. That is most powerful long-tern investment that can be made.”
Britain thanks US
British Prime Minister Theresa May, in a phone call this week with U.S. President Donald Trump, praised Washington’s "very strong response" in the wake of the poisoning.
The White House said, "Both leaders agreed on the importance of dismantling Russia’s spy networks in the United Kingdom and the United States to curtail Russian clandestine activities and prevent future chemical weapons attacks on either country’s soil."
VOA's Jamie Dettmer contributed to this report from Moscow.