US retaliates against Russia by forcing diplomatic closures – Politico
The State Department is forcing the Russian government to vacate three diplomatic compounds in the U.S. by this Saturday — retribution for the Kremlin’s order that the U.S. reduce its staff in Russia by more than 750 people.
In a sharply worded statement, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the State Department had complied with Russia’s demands and had made its own “in the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians.”
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Nauert also called Russia’s prior order to reduce U.S. diplomatic staff “unwarranted and detrimental” — starkly different language from President Donald Trump, who earlier this month thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for the move, saying it would help the U.S. “cut our payroll.”
On a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, a senior Trump administration official said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had informed his counterpart, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, of the U.S. demands during a telephone call earlier in the day. Tillerson and Lavrov also agreed to a meeting in September, the official said, which is likely to occur on the sidelines of next month’s United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.
Per the State Department’s demands, the Russian foreign ministry will be forced by Saturday to close its consulate general and official residence in San Francisco as well as a chancery annex in Washington and a consular annex in New York by this Saturday. Russia’s consulate general in San Francisco is its oldest and most established, the senior administration official told reporters, and its annexes in New York and Washington both play host to trade missions.
“We are responding in this instance to the Russian desire for parity in the diplomatic relationship and we have taken these steps in that measure and in that spirit,” the official said. “And it is our hope that the Russians will recognize that since they were the ones who started the discussion on parity and we’re responding and complying with what they required of us.”
The Russian embassy in Washington did not immediately return a request for comment on the ordered closures.
Russia’s initial demand for a 755-person reduction in U.S. diplomatic staff came in late July, a response to a bill passed overwhelmingly through Congress that imposed a fresh set of sanctions on the Russian government and put stiff restrictions on the president’s ability to rescind those restrictions without Congressional approval.
On Thursday’s conference call, the official would not confirm the number of staff whose positions at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Russia had been eliminated, only that the State Department had met Russia’s demand that it reduce its staff in Russia to no more than 455.
The official also said that the only demand imposed by Russia had been a numeric reduction, allowing the State Department to choose which staff positions were removed and which were retained.
The official was similarly unwilling to say how many of the reduced positions were occupied by Americans and how many were occupied by Russian nationals, but did say that there was an impact on both American and Russian staff. American “diplomatic personnel are like military personnel,” the official said, meaning “they can be transferred and sent to other duties.”
Trump was being sarcastic when he made his “payroll” remark, the official added.
In the statement released earlier on Thursday, Nauert used a tough tone when addressing Russia’s earlier move kicking out hundreds of U.S. staff, saying, “We believe this action was unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”
Nauert also warned that the U.S. is “prepared to take further action” if needed.
“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,” she said. “The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted.”
The tit-for-tat leaves Russia and the U.S. with three consulates each in the other’s country, Nauert’s statement said. The State Department will continue to allow Russia to operate more diplomatic and consular annexes in the U.S. than the U.S. does in Russia, she said, “in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship.” Following the ordered closure in San Francisco, Russia’s three remaining consulates will operate in Seattle, Houston and New York.
The senior administration official said Thursday that the activities currently being carried out in the soon-to-be shuttered locations do not need to be suspended and can be carried out at other facilities. But as of Saturday, the official said, the only allowed activities at the three Russian facilities are maintenance and protection of the properties.
The official said the Russian government leases at least one of the facilities in question and that “I would presume they’re just going to end their lease for that facility.”
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