U.S. must cut staff in Russia by 755
Putin order in retaliation for sanctions
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday the United States would have to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755, heightening tensions between Washington and Moscow three days after the U.S. Congress approved sanctions against Russia.
“Over 1,000 employees — diplomats and technical workers — worked and continue to work today in Russia; 755 will have to stop this activity,” Putin said, according to both a clip shown on state-run Rossiya 1 television
and a transcript provided by the Interfax news agency.
In response, the U.S. State Department deemed it “a re- grettable and uncalled for act.”
Russian’s Foreign Ministry on Friday ordered a reduction by Sept. 1 in the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia. It said it is ordering the U.S. Embassy to limit the number of embassy and consular employees in the country to 455 in response to approval of the new package of American sanctions. The White House has said President Donald Trump would sign those sanctions into law.
The legislation, which also targets Iran and North Korea, seeks to punish Moscow for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria.
Although the reduction in U.S. diplomatic staff had been announced on Friday, the president’s statement was the first to confirm the large number of embassy personnel involved.
Speaking in a television interview on the Rossiya 1 network, Putin said Russia had run out of patience waiting for relations with the U.S. to improve.
“We had hoped that the situation will somehow change, but apparently if it changes, it won’t be soon,” Putin said, explaining why Moscow decided to retaliate. “I thought it was the time to show that we’re not going to leave it without an answer.”
Putin’s remarks came during a 3½-day trip by Vice President Mike Pence to eastern Europe to show U.S. support for countries that have chafed at interference from Moscow — Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro.
Speaking briefly with reporters in Estonia, Pence reaffirmed the president’s decision to sign the sanctions bill, but also held out the possibility that the implementation of the penalties might actually improve relations between the two countries, saying he and Trump “expect Russian behavior to change.”
“The president and I remain very hopeful that we’ll see different behavior by the Russian government, with regard to Ukraine, with regard to supporting rogue regimes in Iran and North Korea,” Pence said. “We continue to believe that if Russia will change its behavior, our relationship can change for the good and improve for the interests in both of our countries and the interest of peace and stability in this region and around the world.”
Russia is open to cooperating with the U.S. on various issues, including terrorism and cybercrime, but instead it “only hears unfounded accusations of meddling in U.S. domestic affairs,” he said.
There are more than 1,000 people currently employed at the Moscow embassy and three U.S. consulates in Russia. They include both Americans and Russians hired to work in the diplomatic offices.
The Russian leader did not explain how the figure of 755 positions was calculated.
In a statement, the State Department said: “This is a regrettable and uncalled for act. We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it. We have no further comment at this time.”
The State Department declined to give an exact number of American diplomats or other U.S. officials in Russia, but the figure is believed to be about 400, some of whom have families accompanying them on diplomatic passports.
The vast majority of the employees at the various U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia, including the embassy in Moscow and consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg, are local employees.
Asked about the potential for additional sanctions against Washington, Putin described the reduction in diplomatic staff as “painful” and said he currently opposes further measures.
“We certainly have something to respond with and restrict those areas of joint cooperation that will be painful for the American side, but I don’t think we need to do it,” he said, adding that such steps could also harm Russian interests.
“If the time comes, we can consider other options for responding. But I hope it doesn’t come to that. As of today, I’m against it,” he said.
In addition, the Kremlin said that as of Tuesday, it will block access to two U.S. diplomatic properties: a warehouse in Moscow and a bucolic picnic ground along the Moscow River. The diplomatic tit-for-tat started under former President Barack Obama. In response to reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two Russian recreational retreats in the U.S.
Putin had made no secret of the fact that he hoped Trump would return the two estates as a friendly gesture when the two met for the first time earlier this month, but that did not happen. The U.S. government has said the two Russian properties it closed were not just recreational areas but were also used for intelligence gathering.