Russia hits back, takes two U.S. sites
Additionally, U.S. embassy in Moscow facing staffing cut over sanctions vote
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.”
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.