By Shaun Walker
Russia has ordered the US to reduce its diplomatic presence in Russia – potentially forcing hundreds of embassy employees in the country to leave their jobs – after Congress approved a new wave of sanctions against Moscow over its interference in last year’s US election.
The move appears to signal the end of Moscow’s hopes for a new and improved relationship with the US under Donald Trump’s presidency.
Russian officials portrayed the demand as a long-delayed response to repeated unfriendly moves by Washington. With Trump embroiled in a scandal that refuses to die over alleged ties between his campaign and Russia, Congress approved the sanctions against Russia this week. Without waiting for Trump to sign the new sanctions into law, Russia announced its response.
The US ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, was summoned to the foreign ministry on Friday morning to be given the news. A statement posted on the ministry’s website said the number of diplomatic and technical personnel across US diplomatic missions in Russia should not exceed 455.
The foreign ministry said it would also close down the embassy dacha (summer residence) on the outskirts of Moscow and rescind access to warehouse space. The restrictions on the properties come into force on 1 August, while the reduction in diplomatic presence is to take place by 1 September, the Russians said.
The ministry said the figure of 455 was equivalent to the number of Russian diplomatic staff accredited for work in the US. The figure refers to all embassy staff, including both US diplomats and local hires.
There was confusion over exactly what the 455 figure would mean for the staffing of US missions in Russia. A spokesperson for the embassy declined to comment on numbers, saying only: “We have received the Russian government notification. Ambassador Tefft expressed his strong disappointment and protest. We have passed the notification back to Washington for review.”
Reuters quoted an embassy source stating that there are about 300 US diplomats based in Moscow, with about 1,100 staff altogether between the Moscow embassy and three consulates across the country. If this figure is accurate, the Russian move would mean more than 600 employees would have to leave.
A source in Russia’s foreign ministry told Interfax news agency it would be up to the Americans to decide on staffing changes to bring the number in line with the 455 figure. The Russians have not earmarked specific diplomats to be kicked out, as is usually the case with diplomatic expulsions.
The agency RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed Russian source who suggested that between 200 and 300 employees would have to be either fired or sent back to the US, in a process that would be “very painful” for the Americans.
The trigger for Friday’s announcement was the new round of sanctions, but the move is also partially a response to the final act of Barack Obama’s administration against Russia.
In December, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and the seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds in retaliation for Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Moscow made the unusual move of not responding reciprocally, allegedly after being given assurances that the incoming Trump administration would reverse the move.
However, this has not happened, and the political consensus in Washington backing further sanctions against Moscow has solidified, with the House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelmingly passing a bill this week that targets Russia, North Korea and Iran.
On Thursday, Vladimir Putin said a Russian response to the new wave of sanctions was inevitable. “We are behaving in a very restrained and patient way, but at some moment we will need to respond … It’s impossible to endlessly tolerate this kind of insolence towards our country.”
The president and other Russian officials have repeatedly denied any meddling in the US election, while US intelligence agencies say they have overwhelming evidence of a coordinated Russian campaign.
Russia’s statement on Friday said the US actions “once again showed the aggressive foreign policy of the United States” that “arrogantly ignores the positions and interests of other states”. The ministry said US elites were gripped by “Russophobia” and claimed Russia had behaved “responsibly and with restraint”.
The ministry said if the US side set out any further sanctions against Russia, they would be met with a symmetrical response.
Donald Trump still has to sign the new sanctions into law, and with the Russian measures not coming into effect until 1 September, there is a chance they could be rescinded if Trump does not sign. However, the US president is under considerable pressure to appear tough on Russia given the scandals over Russian interference in the US election and alleged collusion between the Russians and members of his team.
There is also a possibility that the US and Russian sides could negotiate a bilateral increase in diplomatic presence before the Russian move comes into effect. Russian officials have been complaining for many weeks that US authorities are not granting visas to diplomats it wants to send to the US to replace those who were expelled in December.
The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, by telephone later on Friday. The Russian foreign minister told Tillerson Russia wants to normalise relations, and the pair “agreed to maintain contact on a range of bilateral issues”, the Russian ministry said in a statement.