(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. president often accused of cozying up to the Kremlin suddenly looks closer than ever to the European allies he’s sometimes snubbed.
Donald Trump on Monday expelled 60 Russian diplomats considered spies from the U.S., the most since 1986, demonstrating united resolve with Europe after the U.K. blamed Vladimir Putin’s government for a March 4 nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy living in England. All told, more than 100 Russian envoys will be sent home from capitals across Europe and North America.
Trump drew bipartisan praise in Washington for the expulsions, about a week after he was criticized for congratulating Putin on his re-election in a phone call with the Russian leader. The president’s rapid turn from courting Putin to downgrading diplomatic relations and leading a Western alliance against the Kremlin’s provocations left heads spinning across the globe, none more so than in Moscow.
Putin’s phone call with Trump “gave hope” for better relations, Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador in Washington, told the state-run Tass news service. “It was constructive, and we very much hoped that those thoughts expressed by the two leaders would be carried out in concrete ways.”
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, one of several European leaders who have experienced a strained relationship with Trump, was elated.
“This is the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history,” she told lawmakers in the House of Commons on Monday. “If the Kremlin’s goal is to divide and intimidate the Western alliance, then their efforts have spectacularly backfired.”
Moscow is expected to retaliate by ejecting Western diplomats, and a meeting Trump said he hoped to set with Putin to discuss arms control is in doubt. “The ball’s in their court,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah told reporters at the White House.
Domestically, though, the move may help Trump by showing his independence from the Kremlin. He’s been accused of being slow to accept allegations that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election that he won, let alone punish Russia for its meddling. Some critics have drawn a connection to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between the president’s campaign and the Russian government, or to Trump’s past business relationships with Russian figures.
Trump has denied any campaign collusion. And he can now plausibly claim that he’s willing to stand up to Putin when it matters, though the U.K. attack also has the political benefit of being unconnected to anything Mueller is investigating.
“The Trump administration took the right move here” in response to “an outrageous act,” President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, said on Bloomberg Radio. “And I think this response is a strong one. That sends a powerful signal that our alliance system matters to us in Europe and that’s a united front we need against Putin right now.”
The attack on the former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter was so brazen that Trump probably had little choice but to agree to retaliation. Senior administration officials who insisted on anonymity to discuss the U.S. response called it an attack against America’s oldest ally and a reckless attempt to murder British citizens on British soil.
But Trump made no public appearances Monday and said nothing himself about the attack or the expulsions, leaving it to administration officials and spokesmen to brief reporters and issue statements.
The Skripals were poisoned with a nerve agent called “Novichok” manufactured by the Soviet Union. More than 100 other people were affected, according to a U.S. official, though none of them were severely injured. The Skripals remain “critically ill” in the hospital and their doctors say they may never fully recover, May said.
“Today President Donald J. Trump ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian intelligence officers from the United States and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle due to its proximity to one of our submarine bases and Boeing,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “The United States takes this action in conjunction with our NATO allies and partners around the world in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world.”
European Council President Donald Tusk said that 14 EU countries would expel Russia diplomats, from France and Germany to Latvia and Estonia. Ukraine ordered 13 Russian diplomats to leave, and Canada expelled seven.
The MOEX Russia index of stocks closed down more than 2 percent, its steepest slide in almost a year, led by Gazprom PJSC and Sberbank PJSC. The ruble erased gains, trading little-changed at 57.3075 per dollar as of 7:12 p.m. in Moscow. The government’s 10-year ruble bonds dropped, lifting the yield five basis points to 7.06 percent. Russian credit-default swaps climbed to the highest since Jan. 1.
The U.K. had already expelled 23 Russian diplomats in response to the attack on Skripal and his daughter. Putin’s government in turn ordered 23 British diplomats out of Russia over what it called “unsubstantiated accusations.”
Last week EU leaders declared in a statement that it was “highly likely” there was “no plausible alternative explanation” other than Russia being to blame. While the U.K. and EU also recalled their ambassadors from Russia in response to the attack, the U.S. has no plans to withdraw diplomats from the country, the officials said.
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