A woman walks past the embassy of France in Moscow, Russia 29 March 2018; Credit: Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) - Russia said on Wednesday 18 May 2022 that it was expelling a total of 85 embassy staff from France, Spain and Italy in response to similar moves by those countries, highlighting the damage to relations with leading European Union (EU) members since it launched its war on Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry said it was ordering out 34 diplomatic staff from France, 27 from Spain and 24 from Italy.

The three countries are among European nations that have collectively thrown out more than 300 Russians since the 24 February 2022 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 called Wednesday's announcement by Moscow a "hostile act" and said diplomatic channels must not be interrupted.

France said it deplored the Russian move as an unjustified response to what it said was its own decision in April to expel "several dozen Russian agents acting on our territory under diplomatic status and working against our security interests".

Spain repudiated the Russian decision as not based on the principle of reciprocity, citing "duly justified security reasons" for the expulsion of the Russian embassy staff from Madrid last month, "which is not the case now", the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Italy said its staff had always acted in accordance with the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.

"In repeating our firm condemnation of the aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation, Italy strongly demands an immediate ceasefire that will end the suffering of civilian populations and guarantee the start of concrete negotiations for a political and sustainable solution to the conflict," the Italian foreign ministry said.