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Russia orders 31 European diplomats to leave

File photo of the Russian foreign ministry's building in Moscow

Russia’s foreign ministry orders 31 European diplomats to leave the country in a reciprocal move sparked by its military operation in Ukraine.

The ministry declared 15 diplomats from the Netherlands "persona non grata" and gave them two weeks to leave.

It announced the same deadline for 12 embassy staff of the Belgian diplomatic mission in Moscow after Belgium ordered 21 Russian diplomats to leave.

Moscow also gave four Austrian diplomats until Sunday to leave.

The Russian foreign ministry called a decision by the Netherlands to expel Moscow envoys "groundless" and the step taken by Belgium "provocative."

The ministry said Austria's expulsion of four Russians "seriously damaged both bilateral relations and Austria's international prestige."

Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said, "We are now going to see what consequences will arise from the fact that so many colleagues have to leave Moscow and Saint Petersburg."

Belgium called Russia's decision "totally unjustified and unfounded" and regretted a measure that increases "Russia's international diplomatic isolation."

Russia is yet to react to decisions by Germany and France to each send home 40 of Moscow's envoys, meaning that more expulsions were likely soon.

On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” aimed at “demilitarization” of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine. In 2014, the two regions declared themselves new republics, refusing to recognize Ukraine’s Western-backed government.

Announcing the operation, Putin said the mission was aimed at “defending people who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kiev regime.”

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