Russia has expelled two Bulgarian diplomats in the latest in a succession of tit-for-tat measures that have eroded the number of foreign envoys in Moscow amid rising tensions with the west.
The expulsions come as John Sullivan, US ambassador to Russia, announced he was returning to Washington for consultations, a decision that means both countries’ top diplomats will be absent just days after hitting each other with new sanctions.
Moscow’s relations with the EU and US are at low points not seen since the cold war. Allegations of Russian election meddling and cyber hacks, a huge build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine and fears over the poor health of imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny are all fuelling tensions.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday it had ordered two first secretaries at the Bulgarian embassy to leave the country within 72 hours. That came after it had expelled 20 Czech diplomats on Sunday and 10 US diplomats on Friday.
The moves were in retaliation for the expulsion of Russian diplomats by the respective western governments.
US president Joe Biden last week imposed new sanctions against Russia, targeting 38 individuals and entities and banning US financial institutions from purchasing new Russian state debt.
Sullivan’s decision to leave Moscow came after the Kremlin suggested last week that he return to Washington. Russian officials also imposed a number of restrictions on his mission, including banning Russian and third-party citizens from working at the US embassy in Moscow.
Russia’s ambassador to the US was summoned back to Moscow last month after Biden said he agreed with a reporter who described Russian president Vladimir Putin as a “killer”. The Russian envoy has yet to return to Washington.
The absence of both ambassadors come as Biden and Putin seek to arrange a summit in a third country that the White House hopes to contribute to a “normalisation” of relations.
“I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia,” Sullivan said in a statement.
“Also, I have not seen my family in well over a year, and that is another important reason for me to return home for a visit. I will return to Moscow in the coming weeks before any meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin.”
Moscow said the Bulgarian expulsions were a response to the ejection last month of two Russian diplomats accused of links to a Sofia-based spying ring. According to Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor, a group of six serving and retired Bulgarian military officials allegedly passed classified information to the two diplomats.
Premier Boyko Borisov called on Moscow to “stop spying in Bulgaria”.
The Russian embassy in Sofia dismissed the espionage allegations as part of “incessant attempts to drive a wedge in the Russian-Bulgarian dialogue and again demonise our country”.
In 2020, Bulgaria also expelled five Russian diplomats prosecutors said had been implicated in espionage, including the then-military attaché.