Russia: Mended U.S. ties still goal
Congress forced its hand, it says
MOSCOW — Even as it sought to punish the United States by imposing new sanctions that force the dismissal of employees from U.S. diplomatic posts in Russia, the Kremlin left the door open Monday for President Donald Trump to avoid a further escalation.
“The will to normalize [Russia and U.S.] relations should be placed on the record,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, told reporters Monday.
Russia’s leader warned that he has more tricks up his sleeve to use against the U.S., but he voiced hope that he wouldn’t need to use them.
Russia’s diplomatic expulsions were in response to sanctions passed by Congress last week to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. The Congress-passed measure also would require Trump to seek congressional approval before removing any sanctions. Trump has indicated that he will sign the measure.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump promised to work to improve U.S. ties with Russia. On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence, visiting neighboring Estonia, said he still hoped for “better days and better relations with Russia.”
Pence said in the capital, Tallinn, that the U.S. wants to improve bilateral relations with Russia “despite the recent diplomatic action by Moscow.”
Peskov said Monday that Russia wants constructive cooperation with Washington.
“We are interested in a steady development of our ties and are sorry to note that we are still far from that,” he said.
The breadth of Russia’s diplomatic dismissals — 755 people, most of whom are Russian employees — was significant even by Cold War standards. But Peskov suggested that Russia had been forced to respond to Congress, and that it was not the Kremlin that was making ties worse.
“Of course we’re not interested in those relations being subject to erosion,” Peskov said. “We’re interested in sustainable development of our relations and can only regret that, for now, we are far from this ideal.”
Putin, in a television interview during which he announced the retaliatory move, said Russian patience for improved U.S. relations was at an end.
It was a big shift in tone from the beginning of last month, when Putin and Trump met for the first time at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The immediate assessment in Moscow was that the two had set the stage in that meeting for better relations.
However, congressional and FBI investigations into potential links between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia have weighed heavily on the White House, derailing hopes for mending ties that were strained over Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and other disputes.
WARNING OF MORE
In late December, in response to Russian hacking of last year’s U.S. election, President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats, giving them 72 hours to leave the U.S., and ordered the seizure of two Russia diplomatic country estates in the U.S., which Americans said the Russians had used to conduct espionage.
Putin did not immediately respond to those explusions, hoping that ties would improve under a new U.S. president. But, now, in addition to curtailing the U.S. diplomatic mission, Russia is blocking access starting today to a warehouse and a pastoral area along the Moscow River that the U.S. Embassy has used for barbecues.
Congress’ sanctions last week also seek to punish Russia for releasing emails hacked from Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign last year.
Putin has denied any Russian interference in the U.S. election, saying that anti-Russian sentiment in the United States is being used as a weapon in an internal political battle.
On Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned the U.S. against retaliating against Russia for that country’s latest actions.
“If the U.S. side decides to move further towards further deterioration, we will answer, we will respond in kind,” Ryabkov said on ABC’s This Week.
Asked whether Russia is considering such things as banning U.S. consumer goods, which could affect sales of anything from Coca-Cola to iPhones to Ford cars, Ryabkov declined to provide specifics but said “we have a rich toolbox at our disposal.”
“I can assure you that different options are on the table, and consideration is being given to all sorts of things,” he said.
But Putin said that while Russia has a range of options “that would be sensitive for the American side, I don’t think we should do that. It would hurt the development of international relations.”
The U.S. State Department said it was assessing the effect of the Russian measures and how to respond to them. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow declined to comment.
At the very least, the Kremlin’s latest order is expected to set back some functions at the embassy, like processing visas, which both sides had already slowed.
Consular services in Russia will be “very hard hit,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow. “Russians will have to wait much longer to get a visa,” he said by email.
Many of those emerging from the visa section of the embassy Monday suggested that the latest measures could only make a bad situation worse.
Vladimir Kruglov, a retiree who said he enjoyed touring national parks in the United States, said that until recently the visa process had taken a maximum of 20 days, but there are now all kinds of extra procedures, including a month’s wait for an interview.
Just as in 2014, when Russia banned many Western food imports in reaction to sanctions imposed on it over the Ukraine crisis, it seems that ordinary Russians will bear the brunt of the Kremlin’s latest sanctions.
Most of the 755 embassy
workers dismissed in Russia are likely to be Russians who work at the embassy in Moscow and at the U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. It is not clear how many, if any, Americans will be cut.
Peskov said it is up to the U.S. to decide how to reduce its staff to 455 people, matching the size of Russia’s diplomatic staff in the United States, including those at the United Nations in New York.
A State Department inspector general’s report for 2013, the latest concrete numbers publicly available, said there were 934 “locally employed” staff members at the embassy in Moscow and at three consulates, out of a total staff of 1,279. That would leave roughly 345 Americans there, many of whom report regular harassment by Russian officials.
The majority are hired by the State Department, which is in charge of running the U.S. Embassy and consulates, processing visas and handling other diplomatic tasks. But the staff also includes employees of dozens of governmental agencies and departments, like the Defense Department, the Agriculture Department, NASA and even the Library of Congress. Collectively, the enterprise is often referred to as the U.S. Mission Russia or as Mission Russia.
The 2013 report contains information about who worked for the U.S. Mission Russia, including a breakdown of how many U.S. and foreign staff members worked for each government department and agency. The U.S. Mission Russia consisted of representatives for 35 agencies in 2013.
The single largest departmental employer in Mission Russia is the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services, which in 2013 employed 652 people. Of those 652 people, 603 were foreign nationals, likely Russians, mostly providing administrative services.
U.S. Mission Russia was once far larger. According at a 2007 report, it employed at least 1,779 people at that time, including 1,251 foreign nationals.
While the State Department employed 1,043 of the 1,279 U.S. Mission Russia workers in 2013 and will probably see most from the cuts, other departments also are expected to take a hit. Information for this article was contributed by Neil MacFarquhar, Ivan Nechepurenko and Oleg Matsnev of The New York
Times; by Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press; by Henry Meyer, Stepan Kravchenko, Ilya Arkhipov and Mark Niquette of Bloomberg News; and by Andrew Roth of The Washington Post.