U.S. to Shut 3 Russia Diplomatic Sites But Expel No StaffersNick Wadhams and Bill Faries
State Department sets Sept. 2 deadline to close buildings
Russia will respond to U.S. action, foreign minister says
The Trump administration directed Russia to close three buildings in the U.S. but declined to expel any diplomats in retaliation for the Kremlin’s decision in July ordering Washington to cut staff at its embassy and consulates.
“We are requiring the Russian Government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, DC and a consular annex in New York City,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Thursday. “These closures will need to be accomplished by September 2.”
In a bid to soften the consequences of the decision, a U.S. official who asked not to be identified said that no Russian officials will be expelled. Instead, Moscow can reassign them to other consulates in the U.S. or the embassy in Washington.
The U.S. move comes after Russia directed Washington to cut staff at its diplomatic missions in Russia by 755, or nearly two-thirds, by Sept. 1, following congressional approval of tougher sanctions against Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the time that he hoped there wouldn’t be a need for further retaliation but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later vowed to respond.
The tit-for-tat response underscored how relations between Washington and Moscow have only spiraled downward in the seven months since President Donald Trump came to office promising improved ties with Russia. From the war in Syria to tighter sanctions on North Korea, the U.S. and Russia continue to be at odds on key international issues.
In addition to the San Francisco consulate, the State Department decision affects the residence for the consul-general in the California city as well as two buildings that housed Russia’s trade mission to the U.S. in New York and Washington, according to the U.S. official.
Russia will respond as soon as it’s analyzed the decision, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told university students in Moscow on Friday. While the Obama administration initiated the dispute over embassies to undermine relations and prevent Trump fulfilling his pledges to improve them, Russia wants “mutually respectful” dialogue with the U.S., he said.
“But as you know, it takes two to tango and so far I think our partners are time and again performing individual breakdancing,” Lavrov said.
Russia ordered the expulsions soon after the U.S. Senate on July 27 overwhelmingly passed a bill, later signed by Trump, to prevent the president from easing sanctions without getting congressional approval. The legislation also opened the way to wider restrictions than the ones already in place over the Ukraine crisis.
Russia’s order also came after the Obama administration in late December expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response to alleged hacking of the 2016 presidential election.
Lavrov is among the diplomats that Tillerson has spoken with most often during his term, though the two have frequently exchanged sharp words. In Hamburg, Germany, in early July, Tillerson scolded Lavrov for raising minor irritants in the relationship rather than big issues such as disagreements over the course of Syria’s civil war.
Still, Tillerson has repeatedly said that the U.S. wants to improve the relationship, saying it’s unacceptable for two major nuclear powers to remain in such a continuous state of tension. He and Lavrov reiterated that view in a call they conducted this week, a point made in the latest State Department announcement.
“The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation’s desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides and move forward to achieve the stated goal of both of our presidents: improved relations between our two countries and increased cooperation on areas of mutual concern,” according to the statement.
— With assistance by Henry Meyer, Jake Rudnitsky, and Ilya Arkhipov