Moscow also plans to seize two US diplomatic properties in retaliation for new American sanctions targeting Russia
31 July 2017
President Vladimir Putin said the United States would have to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 people and that Russia could consider imposing additional measures against the US as a response to new sanctions approved by Congress.
Moscow ordered the US on Friday to cut hundreds of diplomatic staff and said it would seize two US diplomatic properties after the House of Representatives and the Senate approved new sanctions on Russia. The White House said on Friday that President Donald Trump would sign the sanctions bill.
A US State Department official said on Sunday Russia’s decision was “regrettable” and that it was now weighing its options. “This is a regrettable and uncalled for act,” the official said. “We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it.”
Putin said in an interview with Vesti TV released on Sunday that the US would have to cut its diplomatic and technical staff by 755 people by 1 September. “Because more than 1,000 workers – diplomats and support staff – were working and are still working in Russia, 755 must stop their activity in the Russian Federation,” he said.
The new US sanctions were in part a response to conclusions by US intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election, and to punish Russia further for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Moscow has denied interfering in the US election. Moscow retaliated by giving the US the deadline to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 people, matching the number of Russian diplomats left in the US after Washington expelled 35 Russians in December.
On Sunday, US vice-president Mike Pence discussed the possibility of deploying the Patriot anti-missile defence system in Estonia, one of three Nato Baltic states worried by Russian expansionism.
Prime minister Juri Ratas told state broadcaster ERR: “We spoke about it today, but we didn’t talk about a date or time.”
“We talked about the upcoming [Russian military] manoeuvres near the Estonian border … and how Estonia, the United States and Nato should monitor them and exchange information,” Ratas said.
Pence was in Estonia as part of a four-day tour to Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro. He was due to meet the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Monday.
An official at the US embassy, who did not wish to be identified, said the embassy employed about 1,100 diplomatic and support staff in Russia, including Russian and US citizens. The state department declined to comment on the exact number of embassy and consular staff in Russia.
As of 2013, the US mission in Russia, including the Moscow embassy and consulates in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, employed 1,279 staff, according to a state department inspector general’s report that year. That included 934 “locally employed” staff and 301 US “direct-hire” staff, from 35 US government agencies, the report said. That breakdown suggested that the actual number of Americans forced to leave Russia would be far smaller than 755.
“We don’t have 755 American diplomats in Russia,” said Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, in a post on Twitter on Sunday. The cuts seemed likely to affect how quickly the United States was able to process Russian applications for US visas, he added.
“If these cuts are real, Russians should expect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to US,” he said.
Putin said Russia could take more measures against the United States, but not at the moment. “I am against it as of today,” Putin said in the interview with Vesti TV.
He repeated that the US sanctions were a step to worsening relations between the two countries.
“We were waiting for quite a long time that maybe something would change for the better, were holding out hope that the situation would change somehow. But it appears that even if it changes someday it will not change soon,” Putin said.
He said Moscow and Washington were achieving results on cooperation, however, even “in this quite difficult situation.” The creation of the southern de-escalation zone in Syria showed a concrete result of the joint work between the two countries, Putin said.
Speaking on ABC’s This Week show, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov called sanctions aimed at penalising Russia for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election “a completely weird and unacceptable piece of legislation”.