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Moscow expelled 85 diplomats from France, Italy and Spain on Wednesday in retaliation for the removal of Russian diplomats from European countries due to the war in Ukraine.
Russia's foreign ministry made the announcement after summoning France's ambassador, Pierre Levy, and telling him that the expulsion of 41 employees of Russian diplomatic missions was a “provocative and unfounded decision”. The diplomats have two weeks to leave.
The three countries are among European nations that have collectively expelled more than 300 Russians since the February 24 invasion. In many cases, they accused Russian diplomats of spying, which Moscow has denied.
Russia's response has included sending home 45 Polish staff and 40 Germans last month. It has also announced tit-for-tat moves against Finland, Romania, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Japan, among others.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi condemned the expulsions as a “hostile act” but said diplomatic channels must remain open “because it's through those channels that, if possible, peace [in Ukraine] will be achieved”.
The foreign ministry in Paris said France “strongly condemns” the expulsion of its diplomats by Russia, adding that this step had “no legitimate basis”.
It said the work of French diplomats in Russia “takes place fully within the framework of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic and consular relations”, whereas Paris expelled Russian staff in April on suspicion of being spies.
Separately, municipal politicians in Moscow backed a decision to name a previously unnamed area in front of the US embassy in Moscow “Donbas Defenders Square”.
The name refers to a majority Russian-speaking region in eastern Ukraine that Russia claims it is liberating as part of its military campaign.
In February 2018, a street outside the Russian embassy in Washington was named after Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician who was shot dead outside the Kremlin in 2015.
Earlier, Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the Nato alliance, a decision spurred by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
However, Nato failed to immediately move forward with the accession process after Turkey blocked the formal acceptance of the applications.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signalled earlier this week that he would not allow the Nordic nations to join, alleging they support Kurdish militants his government regards as terrorists.
On Wednesday he said Sweden should not expect Turkey to approve its Nato bid without returning “terrorists”, and Swedish and Finnish delegations should not come to Turkey to try to convince it to back their membership of the alliance.
He added on Wednesday that his concerns extend beyond Sweden and Finland, to also how other Nato members handle the Kurdish groups.
“Our only expectation from our allies was that they should have approached Turkey’s efforts to protect its borders and establish its security the same way,” he told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in parliament.
Meanwhile, a Russian soldier accused of war crimes in Ukraine pleaded guilty on Wednesday to killing an elderly unarmed civilian.
Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old Russian tank commander, entered his plea in a Kyiv district court hearing its first war crimes trial against a Russian soldier who took part in the invasion.
In a trial that has huge symbolic importance for Kyiv, Shishimarin is charged with murdering a 62-year-old civilian in the north-east Ukrainian village of Chupakhivka. If convicted, he faces up to life imprisonment.
Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians during the invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes.
Russia has denied targeting civilians or involvement in war crimes and accused Kyiv of staging them.
Russian authorities said about 1,000 Ukrainian fighters, including 80 wounded, surrendered this week from the bunkers and tunnels below the Azovstal steelworks in the besieged city of Mariupol.
Concerns grew on Wednesday for the welfare of the fighters, many of them members of the Azov Battalion, who gave themselves up after weeks of resistance.
The surrender brought an end to the most devastating siege of the war in Ukraine and allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in his faltering campaign, which military analysts say has stalled.
A video released by the Russian defence ministry showed fighters leaving the plant. Some were carried on stretchers and others put their hands up to be searched by Russian troops.
Many of them boarded buses and were escorted by Russian armoured vehicles to the south-eastern Russian-held town of Novoazovsk, where Moscow said wounded fighters would be treated.
The soldiers will be questioned by a Russian committee investigating what Moscow has called “Ukrainian regime crimes”, the Tass news agency reported.
“Over the past 24 hours, 694 militants surrendered, including 29 wounded,” the ministry said. “In total, since May 16, 959 militants surrendered, including 80 wounded.”