Putin’s wrath bears down on U.S. diplo­mats

Threat­ens to axe staff in back­lash over sanc­tions

National Post (National Edition) - - WORLD - AN­DREW ROTH

MOSCOW • The Rus­sian govern­ment an­nounced Fri­day it would seize U.S. diplo­matic prop­er­ties and force the State Depart­ment to re­duce its staff in Rus­sia, pos­si­bly by hun­dreds of peo­ple, in re­tal­i­a­tion for a fi­nan­cial sanc­tions bill just passed by the U.S. Congress.

The de­ci­sion ap­peared to mark a turn­ing point for the govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, which has ex­pressed hope of im­proved re­la­tions un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. But Trump’s pledges to strengthen ties have pro­duced few re­sults, with much of the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment en­raged by U.S. in­tel­li­gence find­ings that Rus­sia med­dled in the 2016 elec­tion.

“This is a land­mark mo­ment,” said An­drei Kolesnikov, a jour­nal­ist for the news­pa­per Kom­m­er­sant who reg­u­larly trav­els with Putin and has in­ter­viewed him ex­ten­sively over the past 17 years. “His pa­tience has se­ri­ously run out, and ev­ery­thing that he’s been putting off in this con­flict, he’s now go­ing to do.”

The an­nounce­ment came the morn­ing af­ter Se­nate voted 98-2 for the leg­is­la­tion, which slaps new penal­ties on Rus­sia and also lim­its Trump’s abil­ity to lift an­tiRus­sian sanc­tions al­ready in place. The mea­sure had pre­vi­ously passed the House. Trump’s aides have given mixed sig­nals about whether the pres­i­dent will sign the bill, which also tar­gets Iran and North Korea. Rus­sia has promised ad­di­tional re­tal­ia­tory mea­sures against the new sanc­tions once they are signed into law, pos­si­bly tar­get­ing U.S. com­mer­cial or trade in­ter­ests.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have con­cluded that Putin last year or­dered a cam­paign of cy­ber­at­tacks and pro­pa­ganda aimed at dis­cred­it­ing Trump’s Demo­cratic op­po­nent, Hil­lary Clin­ton. The Rus­sian govern­ment has de­nied the charge, and its state­ment Fri­day re­flected its con­tention that the elec­tion scan­dal is mainly be­ing driven by Trump’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

“The pass­ing of the new bill on sanc­tions clearly showed that re­la­tions with Rus­sia have be­come a hostage of the in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal strug­gle in the U.S.,” the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry said in a state­ment lay­ing out the mea­sures.

The state­ment said that the U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow and con­sulates in St. Peters­burg, Yeka­ter­in­burg and Vladi­vos­tok should re­duce the num­ber of their “diplo­matic and tech­ni­cal em­ploy­ees” to 455, in ap­par­ent par­ity with the num­ber of Rus­sian diplo­matic staff in the United States.

The re­stric­tions on per­son­nel would take ef­fect Sept. 1, the or­der said, likely af­ter Trump makes a de­ci­sion whether to sign the sanc­tions bill or veto it. A veto would likely be over­rid­den by Congress.

The For­eign Min­istry also said it would seize, ef­fec­tive Aug. 1, a Moscow ware­house and dacha, or va­ca­tion house, used by the U.S. Em­bassy. The dacha, lo­cated in a posh sub­urb along the Moscow river, was of­ten used by fam­i­lies of em­bassy work­ers for va­ca­tions or par­ties.

“Am­bas­sador (John F.) Tefft ex­pressed his strong dis­ap­point­ment and protest,” the U.S. em­bassy said in a state­ment.

The Reuters news agency, cit­ing an em­bassy source, said that about 1,100 peo­ple work at the U.S. Em­bassy and the three con­sulates. The agency said about 300 U.S. cit­i­zens are em­ployed at the Moscow em­bassy, which is un­der­go­ing a con­sid­er­able con­struc­tion ex­pan­sion.

Sergei Zheleznyak, a Rus­sian mem­ber of par­lia­ment, said on state tele­vi­sion that the U.S. govern­ment could be forced to re­duce its staff by 700, but nei­ther Rus­sian nor Amer­i­can of­fi­cials con­firmed the num­ber of peo­ple who could be with­drawn. Other re­ports by Rus­sian state news agen­cies sug­gested dozens or hun­dreds could be ex­pelled.

A hand­ful of spies in the United States and Rus­sia have been ex­pelled in re­cent years, in­clud­ing Ryan Fogle, an Amer­i­can CIA agent who was pa­raded on Rus­sian tele­vi­sion wear­ing a shaggy blond wig in 2013. But the last siz­able tit-for-tat ex­pul­sion of diplo­mats was in 2001, when the U.S. govern­ment kicked out 51 Rus­sian diplo­mats over the Robert Hannsen spy case. Hannsen, an FBI agent caught try­ing to make a “dead drop” to a Rus­sian han­dler in a park in Vir­gina, was ac­cused of spy­ing for Rus­sia since 1986. Rus­sia ex­pelled 50 diplo­mats in re­tal­i­a­tion. The United States un­der Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan pre­vi­ously or­dered out 55 Soviet diplo­mats in 1986 in an­other case, af­ter Rus­sia ex­pelled five U.S. diplo­mats.

ALEXAN­DER ZEMLIANICHENKO / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow. One es­ti­mate says up to 700 U.S. diplo­matic staff could be with­drawn from Rus­sia.

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