OTTAWA — Four Russian spies based in Canada have been ordered out of the country as Western governments seek to condemn the Kremlin’s alleged involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian agent and his daughter in Britain.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced the expulsions Monday as the U.S. and more than a dozen European allies took similar action against dozens of Russian diplomats in their own countries.
The scope of the mass expulsions appears to be unprecedented since the Cold War; British Prime Minister Theresa May said a total of more than 100 Russian diplomats in 18 countries had been told to go home.
The move follows the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the British city of Salisbury on March 4 by what has been described as a military-grade nerve agent.
The two remain in critical condition in hospital. A British police officer who found the pair unconscious on a bench outside a shopping centre was also hospitalized, but has since been released.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the attack on Skripal, who served as a double agent for British intelligence in the 1990s before being arrested by Russian authorities and later transferred to the United Kingdom in a spy swap.
But Western governments have nonetheless blamed Russia for what Freeland described in a strongly worded statement as a “despicable, heinous and reckless act, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds.
“The nerve-agent attack represents a clear threat to the rules-based international order and to the rules that were established by the international community to ensure chemical weapons would never again destroy human lives.”
The attack in Salisbury is the latest in a string of inappropriate Russian behaviour, Freeland added, including the annexation of Crimea, support for rebel forces in Ukraine and efforts to interfere in other countries’ elections.
The matter was discussed by phone Monday night between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump, who recently announced the U.S. will be kicking out 60 Russians.
“The leaders discussed measures taken by Canada and the United States to support our common ally against Russia,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, the Russian Embassy in Ottawa called the expulsions “highly deplorable and outrageous,” and accused Canada of “obediently” following the U.S. and Britain amid “baseless” allegations against Moscow.
“This unfriendly move under false and biased pretext delivers yet another serious blow to Russian-Canadian relations and will be met with resolve and reciprocity,” it added in a statement.
Russia expelled 23 British diplomats last week in response to London’s decision to kick out 23 Russians over the Skripal poisoning, and has typically adopted a tit-for-tat approach when it comes to such expulsions.
The four Russians ordered out of Canada are based in Ottawa and Montreal, Freeland said, and are either intelligence officers or “have used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.”
The three denied entry into Canada were accused of similar behaviour.
Neither Freeland nor Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale offered further details, including the nature of their activities or why the Russians had been permitted to stay in Canada if they posed a threat to the country.
“The selection of the individuals is a selection that’s done with great care by the Global Affairs department in consultation with other relevant agencies across the government of Canada,” Goodale said outside the House of Commons.
“And it’s done in a manner to make the point very clear to the Russian government that we are deeply concerned and we’re also very alert to the activities to be unacceptable.”
Expulsions often result in a tit-for-tat response; given that Canada has fewer spies in Russia than Russia has in Canada, “it tends to hurt Canada more than it hurts the Russians,” said University of Ottawa professor Wesley Wark, a leading authority on security and intelligence.
News of the expulsions from Canada came at the same time Germany, France, Poland and more than a dozen other European countries also announced they were kicking out Russian diplomats. The U.S. expulsions were particularly noteworthy, however, given that Trump has been accused of being soft on Moscow, especially in light of allegations it interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Canadian measures also appeared to put another nail in whatever little hope there still was about a pending reset in relations with Russia, which the Liberals promised during the last federal election.
It’s not the first time Canada has expelled a Russian diplomat; such measures weren’t uncommon during the Cold War, including one instance in February 1978 when 11 Russians were forced to leave.
A handful have been expelled since the current tensions between the West and Russia began in 2014, but most have involved one or two Russians — without the type of language or co-ordination involved in Monday’s action.
— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press