A Russian flight was en route to Washington on Saturday to collect Russian diplomats who were expelled this week from their posts at the United Nations over US national security concerns, officials said.
Russia denies the allegations and says it will retaliate for their expulsion. A Rossiya Special Flight Squadron is flying to Washington from St. Petersburg to bring the diplomats to Russia, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said.
“This plane will bring back home the Russian diplomats whom the Government of the United States has declared personae non grata,” Zakharova said over Telegram.
Tensions have flared between Washington and Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine a week ago, fueling Europe’s biggest humanitarian disaster in decades.
A State Department spokesperson said the United States approved a flight chartered by the Russian government to fly out Russian diplomats at the United Nations who were expelled for abuse of their privileges of residence.
“This special exception was done in accordance with federal regulations to ensure Russian mission personnel and their families departed by the date we had instructed,” the spokesperson said.
Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 showed the Russian flight was due to arrive at Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington, around 2 p.m. (1900 GMT).
Earlier on Saturday, President Vladimir Putin said that Western sanctions on Russia were akin to a declaration of war and warned that any attempt to impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine would be tantamount to entering the conflict.
Putin reiterated that his aims in Ukraine are to defend Russian speaking communities through the “demilitarization and de-Nazification” of the country so that it became neutral.
Ukraine and Western countries have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for the invasion he launched on February 24 and have imposed a sweeping range of sanctions aimed at isolating Moscow.
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