Putin’s wrath bears down on U.S. diplomats
Threatens to axe staff in backlash over sanctions
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.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow. One estimate says up to 700 U.S. diplomatic staff could be withdrawn from Russia.