Russia orders US to cut diplomatic staff, seizes two properties over sanctions
MOSCOW– Russia’s Foreign Ministry demanded Friday that the United States cut the number of diplomatic staff it has in Russia and said it would seize two US diplomatic properties, in a sharp response to a new sanctions bill passed by the US Congress a day earlier.
The order — which affects the US Embassy in Moscow and consulates in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok — would reduce the number of US diplomatic and technical staff to 455, the same number Russia has in the US, by 1 September.
Russia is also suspending the use of a US storage facility in Moscow and a country house, or dacha, outside of Moscow by 1 August.
In the statement, the ministry says: “Any new unilateral actions by the US authorities to reduce the number of our diplomats in the United States will be met with a mirror response.”
Thirty-five Russian diplomats were expelled from the United States in December under sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama in response to Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US election. The sanctions also included the closure of two Russian compounds, in Maryland and New York, used for intelligence purposes.
Moscow’s latest move comes a day after the US Senate passed sweeping legislation slapping new sanctions on Russia and limiting President Donald Trump’s ability to remove them.
The bill, which also includes new sanctions on Iran and North Korea, was a product of lengthy negotiations between the House and Senate. In the end, it was passed by both chambers overwhelmingly.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters late Thursday that the President would review the sanctions bill. She did not say whether Trump would sign or veto the measure when it reaches his desk.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on a conference call Friday that Moscow had decided to retaliate before the bill went to Trump because “technically the form passed by the Senate is more important” and is “almost final.”
Asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin had authorized the move, Peskov said such measures are “impossible without the President’s permission.”
He added that possible amendments to the bill would not change the “essence” of the matter.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the new sanctions law “confirms the extreme aggressiveness of the United States in its foreign affairs.”
It accused the US of using the law to “create unfair competitive advantages for the US in the global economy” and said its actions breached international law. “Such blackmail, aimed at limiting the interaction of foreign partners with Russia, carries a threat to many countries and international business.”
Speaking in Finland on Thursday, Putin said he “very much regrets” the worsening of relations between Russia and the United States, blaming it on “anti-Russia hysteria” in domestic US politics.
He said a lot of Russian diplomats had been expelled “without any particular reason” and warned that Russia would have to respond at some point to what he called “boorish behavior” by the United States.