Putin ex­pels 775 U.S. staffers

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drew Roth

MOS­COW» Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin said Sun­day that the U.S. diplo­matic mis­sions in Mos­cow and else­where in the coun­try will have to re­duce their staffs by 755 peo­ple, sig­nal­ing a dra­matic es­ca­la­tion in the Rus­sian re­sponse to Amer­i­can sanc­tions over the Krem­lin’s in­ter­ven­tion in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

The United States and Rus­sia have ex­pelled dozens of each other’s diplo­mats be­fore. But Sun­day’s state­ment, made by Putin in an in­ter­view with the Ros­siya-1 tele­vi­sion chan­nel, sig­naled the largest forced re­duc­tion in em­bassy staffers, com­pa­ra­ble only to the clos­ing of the Amer­i­can diplo­matic pres­ence in the months fol­low­ing the Com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion in 1917.

In the in­ter­view, Putin said that the num­ber of Amer­i­can diplo­matic and tech­ni­cal per­son­nel will be capped at 455 — equiv­a­lent to the num­ber of their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts work­ing in the United States. Cur­rently, about 1,200 em­ploy­ees work at the United States’ em­bassy and con­sulates in Rus­sia, ac­cord­ing to U.S. and Rus­sian data.

“More than a thou­sand em­ploy­ees — diplo­mats and tech­ni­cal em­ploy­ees — have worked and are still work­ing in Rus­sia th­ese days,” Putin told jour­nal­ist Vladimir Solovyov on a na­tion­ally tele­vised news show Sun­day evening. “Some 755 of them will have to ter­mi­nate their ac­tiv­ity.”

The Krem­lin had said Fri­day, as the Se­nate voted to strengthen sanc­tions on Rus­sia, that some Amer­i­can diplo­mats would be ex­pelled, but the size of the re­duc­tion is dra­matic. It cov­ers the main em­bassy in Mos­cow as well as mis­sions in St. Peters­burg, Yeka­ter­in­burg and Vladi­vos­tok.

“This is a land­mark mo­ment,” An­drei Kolesnikov, a jour­nal­ist for the news­pa­per Kom­m­er­sant who reg­u­larly trav­els with Putin and has in­ter­viewed him ex­ten­sively over the past 17 years, said Fri­day. “His pa­tience has se­ri­ously run out, and ev­ery­thing that he’s been putting off in this con­flict, he’s now go­ing to do.”

The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment also is seiz­ing two diplo­matic prop­er­ties — a dacha, or coun­try house, in a leafy neigh­bor­hood in Mos­cow, and a ware­house — af­ter the de­ci­sion by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in De­cem­ber to take pos­ses­sion of two Rus­sian man­sions in the United States.

The move comes as it has be­come ap­par­ent that Rus­sia has aban­doned its hopes for bet­ter re­la­tions with the United States un­der a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Dur­ing the in­ter­view, Putin said he ex­pected re­la­tions be­tween the United States and Rus­sia to worsen and that Rus­sia prob­a­bly would come up with other mea­sures to counter Amer­i­can fi­nan­cial sanc­tions, which were passed by the House and Se­nate last week and which Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has said he will sign.

The re­duc­tion in U.S. diplo­matic and tech­ni­cal staff is a re­sponse to for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ex­pul­sion of 35 Rus­sian diplo­mats in De­cem­ber in re­sponse to the al­leged Rus­sian hack­ing of the mail servers of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. The United States also re­voked ac­cess to two Rus­sian diplo­matic com­pounds on Mary­land’s Eastern Shore and on Long Is­land. Amer­i­can of­fi­cials said they were used for in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion.

It is not yet clear how the State Depart­ment will re­duce its staff in Rus­sia. Many of the 1,200 em­ploy­ees are lo­cal hires and sup­port work­ers, some hired to help with a sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion of the U.S. em­bassy com­pound in Mos­cow.

The move in­creases the like­li­hood of new, per­haps asym­met­ri­cal reprisals by the United States in com­ing days.

Michael McFaul, for­mer am­bas­sador to Rus­sia, tweeted Sun­day: “If th­ese cuts are real, Rus­sians should ex­pect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to US.”

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