The United States and the European Union closed ranks behind Britain Monday, announcing the expulsion of Russian diplomats in the wake of the Salisbury nerve agent attack.
But the news comes as Russia mourns the deaths of dozens in a blaze in a shopping center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo Sunday.
It’s an extremely delicate domestic political moment for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently sailed to a re-election victory in a March 18 vote: He’s expected to deliver on promises of change to improve the lives of ordinary Russians. And it’s also a touchy moment for US and European officials, as they ratchet up confrontation with Moscow.
European Council President Donald Tusk nodded to those sensitivities following a statement announcing the expulsion of Russian diplomats in response to the country’s alleged role in the poisoning of former Russia agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.
“We remain critical of the actions of the Russian government,” Tusk said, adding in Russian: “Today we Europeans — together with the Russian people — mourn the victims of the tragic fire in the city of Kemerovo in Western Siberia. Our thoughts and hearts are with you.”
Whether such sentiments reach ordinary Russians is another matter. Russia’s state-dominated media have cast the Skripal case as an anti-Russian conspiracy, giving heavy coverage to officials who deny Russian involvement and condemning Britain’s response as a “circus show.”
On Sunday night, as news reports emerged of the Kemerovo fire, Russia’s signature weekly news broadcast Vesti Nedeli dedicated considerably more time — over 20 minutes — to excoriating British politicians, while giving just over three minutes to the fire in Kemerovo.
Such coverage of the fire outraged some Russians, who posted angry comments on the Facebook page of Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
“Where is the media, TV, press services?” wrote one commenter, who identified herself as Victoria Tamarova. “They all forgot why they exist? — a terrifying example of the fact that the entire TV programming is artificially made. The whole country is on ‘the right diet’ with ‘the right news.’ But there are limits!!”
For now, it remains to be seen how Russia will retaliate. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “The principle of reciprocity will be enforced” if the United States decides to expel Russian diplomats. How Russian media will respond remains to be seen.