Russian authorities are now barring American diplomats and their families from a U.S. recreational residence on the outskirts of Moscow, part of sweeping retaliatory measures announced by Kremlin leader Vladmir Putin.
The Russian president ordered the U.S. on Sunday to cut its overall staff of more than 1,200 in Russia by 755 people, in response to new U.S. sanctions imposed against Moscow for its interference in the 2016 presidential election. It is believed to be the single largest cut ever imposed on the U.S. embassy in Moscow and consulates elsewhere in Russia, although many of those to be dismissed are likely Russians working in support positions.
Putin said the cuts would leave both Russia and the U.S. with the same number of staff and diplomats in Washington and Moscow, respectively — 455.
President Donald Trump has been silent on the issue since Putin announced his retaliatory action.
Asked about this Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “Right now we are reviewing our options, and when we have something to say on it we will let you know.”
No response yet to Putin
The White House has said Trump intends to sign into law the new round of sanctions against Russia that Congress passed last week, but he has not yet done so.
The U.S. State Department said the order to reduce the number of American diplomats in Russia was “a regrettable and uncalled for act.” A spokesman said U.S. officials are assessing how to respond to Putin.
A Russian analyst, Nikolai Petrov of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said the move reflects the Kremlin’s disillusionment with Trump: “These measures are tough, and it is linked to a deep disappointment that came after the euphoria linked to the arrival of Donald Trump [to power], and to the idea that today we will start our relations anew.”
Another Russian analyst, Gleb Pavlovsky, said a return to Cold War-era hostilities with the U.S. will only boost Putin’s popularity at home ahead of another likely bid for the Russian presidency next year.
Pavlovsky, a former political consultant for the Kremlin who now is president of the Foundation for Effective Politics in Moscow, explained how U.S. efforts to “punish” Putin may have the opposite effect: “American sanctions naturally are causing a definite mass reaction [in Russia] — an anti-American, pro-Putin reaction.” If Putin wished, Pavlovsky added, he could make the American sanctions the centerpiece of his re-election campaign next year.
Russians also will feel cutback
Other experts say the vital work of the U.S. embassy in Moscow will continue despite the massive cuts.
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. diplomat now with the Brookings Institution, told VOA that Russians also may discover some unintended consequences of their president’s crackdown on U.S. diplomacy.
“My assumption is hundreds of Russians are going to lose their jobs now,” Pifer said. “And when you’re looking at priority functions of the embassy, you know, visa functions are important but they’re not as important as other functions. So my guess is that those Russians [who] want to travel to the United States are going to find that visa processing is going to take longer than usual because of reduced staff in the consular section.”
Pifer was assigned to the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1986, at a time when there were several back-and-forth expulsions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He later served on the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton, and was ambassador to Ukraine from 1998-2000.
During his time in the Russian capital, Pifer said, American staff were called upon for “all-purpose duty” at times when Russian support staff were unavailable for political reasons.
“So, five or six days out of every seven, I would work on my normal portfolio, which is arms control,” Pifer recalled. “And then one day, I’d drive a truck. And the embassy got by. There was actually this incredible spirit in the embassy that we were going to show the Soviets that this kind of action was not going to cramp the embassy.”
Pifer said he expects the same determined spirit from U.S. embassy personnel now.
Congress approved the new sanctions against Russia last Thursday, as part of a package that also included new measures against Iran and North Korea. Russia’s foreign ministry denounced the U.S. for “extreme aggression” in international affairs and signaled the coming counter-measures the next day, two days before Putin personally announced the cutbacks in diplomatic staff.
In addition to sharply trimming the size of the U.S. mission, Russia reclaimed two U.S. facilities, a recreational retreat near Moscow and a storage facility in the city.