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Russia ordered dozens of French diplomats to leave the country on Wednesday as relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate.
The move of Russia targeted 34 French diplomats, as well as 27 from Spain, according to statements by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Both France and Spain have taken similar steps to expel Russian diplomats from their countries in recent weeks. Spanish diplomats have to leave Russian soil within a week, while the French have been given two weeks.
France expelled six Russian citizens claimed to operate as spies under diplomatic cover in early April.
The Kremlin’s retaliation comes as tensions between Russia and the West continue to grow. On Tuesday, Sweden and Finland submitted a joint application for NATO membership, despite their tradition of neutrality.
The regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously stated that such a move could justify the deployment of nuclear and hypersonic weapons on the border with Finland. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov swept away the development in a statement on Tuesday, however, stating it won’t make “much of a difference.”
“Finland and Sweden, as well as other neutral countries, have been participating in NATO military exercises for many years,” Lavrov said Tuesday.
“NATO takes their territory into account when planning the military advance eastward. So in that sense there is probably not much difference. Let’s see how their territory is used in practice in the North Atlantic alliance,” he added.
Lavrov’s statement was a strong departure from Russia’s previous stance on NATO expansion. Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, discussed in April That such a move would justify Russia deploying nuclear and hypersonic weapons on the western border with Finland.
“We can no longer speak of a denuclearization status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored,” he said at the time. “To date, Russia has not taken such measures and would not have done so. If our hand is forced, well … take note that we didn’t propose it.”