Rus­sia hits back, takes two U.S. sites

Ad­di­tion­ally, U.S. em­bassy in Moscow fac­ing staffing cut over sanc­tions vote

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Neil MacFarquhar of The New York Times and by Richard Lardner of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

MOSCOW — Rus­sia took its first steps Fri­day to re­tal­i­ate against pro­posed U.S. sanc­tions for Moscow’s sus­pected med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion, seiz­ing two U.S. diplo­matic prop­er­ties and or­der­ing the U.S. Em­bassy to re­duce its staff by Septem­ber.

The moves, which Rus­sia had been threat­en­ing for weeks, came a day af­ter the U.S. Se­nate ap­proved a mea­sure to ex­pand eco­nomic sanc­tions against Rus­sia, as well as against Iran and North Korea. The bill, mir­ror­ing one passed Tues­day by the House, now goes to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump for his sig­na­ture.

The White House has been am­biva­lent about whether Trump will sign off on the leg­is­la­tion, which comes amid con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tions into pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween his cam­paign and the Krem­lin. Dur­ing his cam­paign for the pres­i­dency, Trump pledged to im­prove ties with Rus­sia.

But the lat­est move by the Krem­lin strikes an­other

blow against the al­ready dis­mal diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween the two sides, with each new step mov­ing Moscow and Wash­ing­ton fur­ther from the rap­proche­ment an­tic­i­pated months ago.

The num­ber of U.S. tar­gets in­side Rus­sia for Krem­lin re­tal­i­a­tion are lim­ited, par­tic­u­larly if Moscow is wor­ried about dam­ag­ing the in­vest­ment cli­mate or about other eco­nomic fall­out.

Ex­ter­nal are­nas, how­ever, are a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Moscow might have shown some re­straint in east­ern Ukraine or in Syria be­cause of the ex­pec­ta­tion of im­prov­ing ties with Wash­ing­ton, but now, the Krem­lin might be look­ing for places to chal­lenge the United States.

The Rus­sia sanc­tions are also meant to pun­ish it for mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion in Ukraine and Syria, where the Krem­lin has backed Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

Re­fer­ring to the vote by Congress to toughen the sanc­tions, the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry said in a state­ment: “This yet again at­tests to the ex­treme ag­gres­sive­ness of the United States when it comes to in­ter­na­tional af­fairs.”

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, said the Rus­sian leader ap­proved the re­tal­ia­tory mea­sures de­spite say­ing a day ear­lier that he would wait for the fi­nal ver­sion of the law be­fore tak­ing any such steps.

The ver­sion that emerged from the Se­nate vote late Thurs­day seemed to be the fi­nal one, Peskov said, and the White House has al­ready sug­gested that it might re­ject this law in fa­vor of some­thing even more oner­ous.

“The White House said that the bill could be tough­ened, so it doesn’t change the essence of the sit­u­a­tion,” Peskov said.

The U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow is­sued a short state­ment con­firm­ing only that it had re­ceived the no­ti­fi­ca­tion from the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry and that it was send­ing the or­ders to Wash­ing­ton for re­view. The U.S. am­bas­sador, John Tefft, had ex­pressed “his strong dis­ap­point­ment and protest,” the state­ment said.

The state­ment from the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry said the U.S. Em­bassy was asked to re­duce its diplo­matic and tech­ni­cal staff mem­bers in Rus­sia to 455 by Sept. 1, match­ing the num­ber of Rus­sian diplo­mats in the United States.

In ad­di­tion to the em­bassy in Moscow, the United States has con­sulates in St. Peters­burg, Vladi­vos­tok and Yeka­ter­in­burg.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear how many U.S. work­ers would have to leave, be­cause the Krem­lin’s an­nounce­ment did not de­tail which em­ploy­ees were to be in­cluded in the count. There are hun­dreds of staff mem­bers in Rus­sia, in­clud­ing work­ers con­struct­ing an em­bassy build­ing in Moscow.

Start­ing Tues­day, Rus­sia also will block ac­cess to a ware­house in Moscow and to a site along the Moscow River where staff mem­bers walk their dogs and hold bar­be­cues.

In De­cem­ber, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ex­pelled 35 Rus­sian diplo­mats and seized two es­tates, one on Long Is­land, N.Y., and one on Ch­e­sa­peake Bay in Mary­land, in re­sponse to Rus­sia’s med­dling in the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Moscow did not re­spond at that time, with Putin sig­nal­ing that he was hop­ing for bet­ter re­la­tions af­ter Trump took of­fice.

The Fri­day an­nounce­ment from the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry said that if the United States re­sponded to the lat­est mea­sure with any fur­ther ex­pul­sions, Rus­sia would match them.

A cor­ner­stone of the sanc­tions bill bars Trump from eas­ing or waiv­ing the ad­di­tional penal­ties on Rus­sia un­less Congress agrees. The pro­vi­sions were in­cluded to as­suage con­cerns among law­mak­ers that the pres­i­dent’s push for bet­ter re­la­tions with Moscow might lead him to re­lax the penal­ties with­out first se­cur­ing con­ces­sions from the Krem­lin.

Trump had pri­vately ex­pressed frus­tra­tion over Congress’ abil­ity to limit or over­ride the power of the pres­i­dent on na­tional se­cu­rity mat­ters, ac­cord­ing to Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and ad­vis­ers who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal White House de­lib­er­a­tions.

The North Korea sanc­tions are in­tended to thwart Py­ongyang’s am­bi­tion for nu­clear weapons by cut­ting off ac­cess to the cash the reclu­sive na­tion needs to fol­low through with its plans. The bill pro­hibits ships owned by North Korea or by coun­tries that refuse to com­ply with U. N. res­o­lu­tions against it from op­er­at­ing in Amer­i­can wa­ters or dock­ing at U. S. ports. Goods pro­duced by North Korea’s forced la­bor would be pro­hib­ited from en­ter­ing the United States, ac­cord­ing to the bill.

The sanc­tions pack­age also im­poses manda­tory penal­ties on peo­ple in­volved in Iran’s bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram and any­one who does busi­ness with them. The mea­sure would ap­ply ter­ror­ism sanc­tions to the coun­try’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards and en­force an arms em­bargo.

Mean­while, some Euro­pean coun­tries ex­pressed con­cerns that the mea­sures tar­get­ing Rus­sia’s en­ergy sec­tor would harm its busi­nesses in­volved in pip­ing Rus­sian nat­u­ral gas. Ger­many’s for­eign min­is­ter said his coun­try wouldn’t ac­cept the U.S. sanc­tions against Rus­sia be­ing ap­plied to Euro­pean com­pa­nies.

A spokesman for the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion said Fri­day that Euro­pean of­fi­cials will be watch­ing the U.S. ef­fort closely, vow­ing to “re­main vig­i­lant.”

AP/Sput­nik/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, shown hold­ing a meet­ing Fri­day out­side Moscow, ap­proved the re­tal­ia­tory mea­sures af­ter say­ing ear­lier that he would wait for the fi­nal ver­sion of the U.S. sanc­tions law be­fore tak­ing any such steps.

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