Rus­sia ax­ing diplo­matic staff of U.S.

Em­bassies and con­sulates must cut 755 work­ers, Putin says in re­sponse to sanc­tions pack­age.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Laura King and Sabra Ayres

WASH­ING­TON — Touch­ing off the Krem­lin’s most se­ri­ous diplo­matic con­fronta­tion with Wash­ing­ton since Pres­i­dent Trump took of­fice six months ago, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin an­nounced Sun­day that the United States would have to cut its em­bassy and con­sulate staff by 755 — by far the big­gest such forced re­duc­tion in years — in re­sponse to a pack­age of sanc­tions await­ing Trump’s sig­na­ture.

“I de­cided it’s time for us to show we do not in­tend to leave U.S. ac­tions unan­swered,” the Rus­sian leader said in re­marks aired in a prime-time evening in­ter­view on “Vesti,” a pro­gram on Rus­sia’s Chan­nel One.

The an­nounce­ment marks a dizzy­ing new turn in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Putin and Trump, whose in­ter­ac­tions for months had ap­peared to be both courtship rit­ual and test­ing ground.

The cuts to Amer­i­can and lo­cal diplo­matic po­si­tions, to take ef­fect Sept. 1, would re­duce the num­ber of U.S. diplo­matic staff in Rus­sia to 455, the same num­ber that Rus­sia has in the United States.

Putin fu­eled con­fu­sion by us­ing the verb for “pack up” in re­fer­ring to the per­son­nel cuts he or­dered, lead­ing to ini­tial re­ports in Rus­sia that the en­tire num­ber of re­duc­tions he cited were to be ex­pul­sions. “More than 1,000 em­ploy­ees, diplo­mats and tech­ni­cal work­ers … con­tinue to work to­day in Rus­sia,” he said, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­fax news agency. “Seven hun­dred and fifty-five will have to stop this ac­tiv­ity.”

In ad­di­tion to the em­bassy in Mos­cow, the U.S. main­tains con­sulates in St. Peters­burg, Vladi­vos­tok and Yeka­ter­in­burg. His di­rec­tive pro­vided no break­down of the num­bers of U.S. per­son­nel to be ex­pelled and nonAmer­i­can staff to be dis­missed, nor has the State Depart­ment is­sued any state­ment clar­i­fy­ing who would be af­fected.

A for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Rus­sia, Michael McFaul, tweeted that Putin’s fig­ure ex­ceeds the to­tal num­ber of Amer­i­can diplo­mats in the coun­try.

Af­ter the sanc­tions bill won Se­nate ap­proval last week, the Krem­lin had in­di­cated that some ex­pul­sions were in the off­ing, and the For­eign Min­istry said Fri­day that the num­ber of U.S. per­son­nel should be re­duced to 455. Putin’s an­nounce­ment for­mal­ized that — and marked a huge es­ca­la­tion in terms of the usual diplo-

matic tit for tat.

By con­trast, only 35 Rus­sians were ex­pelled by Pres­i­dent Obama shortly be­fore he left of­fice — and most of those were specif­i­cally sin­gled out on sus­pi­cion of links to spy­ing.

The For­eign Min­istry had also said it seized two Amer­i­can diplo­matic prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing cot­tages just out­side Mos­cow’s city cen­ter and a ware­house fa­cil­ity in Mos­cow.

Even dur­ing the days of the Cold War, re­tal­ia­tory ex­pul­sions num­bered in the dozens rather than hun­dreds, such as when the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion or­dered out 55 Soviet diplo­matic per­son­nel in 1986.

Be­fore Putin’s an­nounce­ment, the White House had in­di­cated that Trump would sign the sanc­tions bill, even though the pres­i­dent has for months ex­pressed un­cer­tainty over Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in what U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have de­scribed as a con­certed cam­paign of Krem­lin in­ter­fer­ence meant to throw the elec­tion to Trump.

Trump held his first faceto-face meet­ing as pres­i­dent with Putin in July on the side­lines of a Group of 20 sum­mit in Ger­many — an en­counter in which crit­ics said Trump failed to force­fully con­front the Rus­sian leader over elec­tion med­dling.

At the same sum­mit, Trump en­gaged in an un­scripted pri­vate chat with Putin while both were at­tend­ing a large din­ner for lead­ers and their spouses — an en­counter that shocked pol­icy mavens, who said the pres­i­dent’s fail­ure to have any U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tive privy to the con­ver­sa­tion, even an in­ter­preter, had been a per­ilous choice.

In a sense, Sun­day’s an­nounced re­tal­i­a­tion by the Krem­lin brings U.S.-Rus­sia ties full cir­cle from the Obama-or­dered ex­pul­sions back in De­cem­ber. Trump, then pres­i­dent-elect, had praised Putin at the time for not re­spond­ing in kind to those. It even­tu­ally emerged that Trump’s short-lived na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor, Michael Flynn, had dis­cussed the sanc­tions is­sue with Rus­sia’s then-am­bas­sador to Wash­ing­ton, Sergey Kislyak. Flynn was fired af­ter just 24 days on the job.

Both Trump’s White House and the State Depart­ment were silent in the hours fol­low­ing Putin’s dec­la­ra­tion. A day ear­lier, the State Depart­ment had elicited puz­zle­ment when it de­scribed the U.S. sanc­tions as a bid to im­prove ties with Mos­cow. Af­ter Putin’s an­nounce­ment, the U.S. Em­bassy in Mos­cow is­sued a brief state­ment ex­press­ing dis­ap­point­ment.

Putin’s com­ments came hours af­ter a se­nior Rus­sian en­voy had hinted at ad­di­tional re­tal­i­a­tion for an “un­ac­cept­able” U.S. sanc­tions mea­sure over­whelm­ingly ap­proved last week by the Se­nate, fol­low­ing a sim­i­larly lop­sided en­dorse­ment by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

In an in­ter­view aired in the U.S. shortly be­fore Putin spoke on Rus­sian TV, Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Ryabkov had sharply de­nounced the sanc­tions bill, calling it “un­ac­cept­able” and “the last straw.”

“This re­tal­i­a­tion is long, long over­due,” the en­voy said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Trump, who was at his Vir­ginia golf course as the diplo­matic con­fronta­tion erupted, has re­peat­edly called mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions as to whether Rus­sia col­luded with his cam­paign a “witch hunt.” Ryabkov used sim­i­lar lan­guage to de­scribe the in­quiries.

“The very fact that some­one saw some Rus­sian or Rus­sians some­where is now close to a crim­i­nal act — I think it’s ridicu­lous,” he said in the ABC in­ter­view. “It’s de­grad­ing for such a great coun­try as the United States.”

Although he re­peated a blan­ket de­nial of Krem­lin in­volve­ment in the elec­tion, Ryabkov did not di­rectly ad­dress a ques­tion as to whether Mos­cow had given the Trump camp il­le­gally ob­tained in­for­ma­tion that was detri­men­tal to Hil­lary Clin­ton, Trump’s op­po­nent.

“All the in­for­ma­tion we pro­vide to any­one can be eas­ily found in open sources,” he said.

Even while an­nounc­ing the ex­pul­sions and staff cuts, the Rus­sian pres­i­dent said there were still ar­eas where Wash­ing­ton and Mos­cow could co­op­er­ate, in­clud­ing counter-ter­ror­ism.

The lat­est round of in­ter­nal tur­bu­lence at the White House car­ries po­ten­tial reper­cus­sions for the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions be­ing car­ried out by spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III, the FBI and Congress.

Trump is re­plac­ing his ousted chief of staff, Reince Priebus, with Sec­re­tary of Home­land Se­cu­rity John F. Kelly, a re­tired Marine Corps gen­eral.

That gave rise to im­me­di­ate spec­u­la­tion that the pres­i­dent might try to ap­point Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions, who has re­cused him­self from Rus­sia-re­lated mat­ters, as Kelly’s re­place­ment. Such a step would the­o­ret­i­cally leave Trump free to ap­point a new at­tor­ney gen­eral who would be em­pow­ered to over­see the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to fire the spe­cial coun­sel.

Ses­sions re­cused him­self this year af­ter it emerged that he had failed to re­port con­tacts with Rus­sia’s am­bas­sador to the United States while ad­vis­ing the Trump cam­paign. Over the last week, Trump has re­peat­edly at­tacked the at­tor­ney gen­eral on Twit­ter for his re­cusal, in what was widely viewed as an at­tempt to push Ses­sions into re­sign­ing.

Law­mak­ers from both sides of the aisle have sig­naled that any move to side­line Ses­sions — ei­ther by fir­ing him or seek­ing to trans­fer him to a new post — would be re­garded with sus­pi­cion. More such warn­ings came Sun­day.

Any move to fill Kelly’s job with the at­tor­ney gen­eral is “up to Jeff Ses­sions and the pres­i­dent,” said Sen. Su­san Collins (R-Maine), in­ter­viewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” But she added that if Trump acted be­cause of Ses­sions’ “cor­rect de­ci­sion to re­cuse him­self, I think that’s a mis­take.”

Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (D-Calif.), de­clared on CBS’ “Face the Na­tion” that any move against Mueller would prob­a­bly back­fire badly. Fe­in­stein said that if Trump tried to fire the spe­cial coun­sel, it “could well be the be­gin­ning of the end of his pres­i­dency.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had fought to pre­vent the sanc­tions bill’s pas­sage, but the pres­i­dent was seen as hav­ing lit­tle choice but to sign it be­cause the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions have reached deeper into the White House and touched mem­bers of his fam­ily. He could veto the mea­sure, but be­cause the bill passed by such large mar­gins, Congress could then over­ride him.

Alexan­der Zem­lianichenko As­so­ci­ated Press

PUTIN’S or­der marks a huge es­ca­la­tion in terms of typ­i­cal diplo­matic tit for tat.

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