Donald Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker have broken ranks with western disapproval for Vladimir Putin, issuing their congratulations to the Russian leader for his electoral success even as diplomats were flown out of the UK in retribution for the Salisbury nerve agent attack.
The two leaders were heavily criticised on Tuesday for their overtures to Moscow, which broke a taboo among western leaders in appearing to endorse the Russian leader’s re-election to a fourth term in power.
The leader of the Conservative party in the European parliament, Ashley Fox, described a letter from Juncker, president of the European commission, as “disgraceful”, while Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s representative in Brexit talks, tweeted: “This is no time for congratulations.”
In the US, Senator John McCain led the criticism of Trump’s choice of words by calling it an “insult to every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election”. He added: “An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”
Other western leaders have acknowledged Putin’s victory, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and the French president, Emmanuel Macron. But both avoided explicitly using the word “congratulate”, instead “wishing success” to Putin for his new six-year term in office.
The apparent indiscipline in Washington and Brussels will frustrate British officials, who have urged a united front among Western leaders in the aftermath of the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. The attack has plunged relations between London and Moscow to their worst level in a generation.
In the UK about 80 expelled Russian diplomats and their families boarded a plane to Moscow. A convoy of buses and people carriers left the embassy in London at about10am with family members, some holding pet carriers, also seen boarding the vehicles.
Embassy workers waved to the leaving diplomats and their families as the buses pulled away, a Reuters photographer at the scene said.
With tensions high as Russian diplomats elsewhere in Europe expressed their opposition to the move, Fox, the Tory MEP for South-West England & Gibraltar, hit out at Juncker for failing to mention the Salisbury nerve agent attack against “innocent people in my constituency”, and called his memo to Putin “nauseating”.
Others on social media hit out at Juncker’s message to Putin after the EU had promised to support the UK amid heightened tensions following the attack.
EU officials raised concerns about the tone taken by Juncker, with one source stressing that the European council president, Donald Tusk, had “not sent such a letter until now and I would not be surprised if he did not send one at all”.
Speaking at the White House, Trump confirmed he had called Putin to “congratulate him on his electoral victory”. Trump and Putin did not discuss the poisoning in Salisbury of the former double agent Skripal, the Kremlin told the Interfax news agency.
Trump added: “We had a very good call, and I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future.”
Talk of an “arms race” has increased since Putin held a blood-pumping state of the nation address this month where he showed off Russia’s newest nuclear weapons, blaming the US for leaving the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and telling his audience: “They didn’t listen to us then. Listen to us now.”
Juncker, in his letter, offered his congratulations and wished the Russian leader “every success in carrying out your high responsibilities”.
The message, which the commission president made public in a tweet, added: “I have always argued that positive relations between the European Union and the Russian Federation are crucial to the security of our continent. Our common objective should be to re-establish a cooperative pan-European security order.
“I hope that you will use your fourth term in office to pursue this goal. I will always be a partner in this endeavour.”
Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, said Russia had to be held responsible for the attack but added: “There has to be an absolutely definitive answer to the question: where did the nerve agent come from?”
Speaking to the BBC, the Labour leader said that it was important to deal with Russia where necessary. “Would I do business with Putin? Sure,” he said. “And I’d challenge him on human rights in Russia, challenge him on these issues and challenge him on that whole basis of that relationship.”
Fox questioned Juncker’s failure to raise criticism of the election process and the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, for which Theresa May has pointed the finger at the Putin administration.
“To congratulate Vladimir Putin on his election victory without referring to the clear ballot-rigging that took place is bad enough. But his failure to mention Russia’s responsibility for a military nerve agent attack on innocent people in my constituency is nauseating,” said Fox.
“The European commission president is appeasing a man who poses a clear threat to western security.”
Britain has turned to the EU for support over Salisbury. While additional sanctions against Russia are not on the agenda of the leaders’ summit in Brussels on Thursday, an official said the focus would be on attribution of the attack and solidarity.
Tusk was said by an EU official to be sympathetic to Downing Street’s analysis and approach.
May chaired a session of the national security council on Tuesday at which ministers discussed strict new checks by border officials on private flights.
The move is part of a series of actions agreed at a previous session after the Salisbury attack, which are focused on tracking people entering the country who could pose a threat to national security.
“Action has also been taken at the UK’s border to enhance our efforts to monitor and track the intentions of those travelling to the UK who could be engaged in activity that threatens the security of the UK and of our allies,” the prime minister’s spokesman said. “This includes strict checks by border officials on private flights.”