The State Department warned Thursday that the U.S. could respond to Russia's decision to expel 60 American diplomats, raising the possibility that the diplomatic tit for tat between Moscow and Washington could escalate even further.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert argued that Russia's expulsion of the U.S. officials was "unwarranted," saying there was "no justification" for the move.
"We reserve the right to respond," Nauert told reporters in a press briefing. "I’m not going to predict anything that could happen, but we certainly have the ability to respond."
Russia's decision to boot diplomats from the U.S. and other countries on Thursday came in direct response to similar actions taken by Western nations this week.
The expulsions of Russian officials was a coordinated effort by two dozen countries to punish Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil earlier this month.
Those acts of retaliation prompted anger from Moscow, which vowed to respond in kind.
The Russian government has denied any role in the poisonings and has blamed the diplomatic expulsions on a "colossal blackmail" campaign by Washington.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry, where he was notified that 60 American diplomats would be expelled from the country, Nauert said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also told Huntsman that the Russian government would shutter the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg.
The fiery diplomatic response underscored rising tensions between Russia and the West.
Nauert maintained Thursday that, unlike Moscow's actions, the U.S. decision to expel Russian officials was justified and targeted those believed to be spies operating under diplomatic cover.
The Americans being expelled from Russia are employees of the State Department and do not work for U.S. intelligence agencies, she said.
"There is no justification for the Russian response," she said. "Our actions were motivated by an attack in the United Kingdom, an attack on a British citizen and his daughter."