Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that the U.S. diplomatic missions in Moscow and elsewhere in the country will have to reduce their staffs by 755 people, signaling a dramatic escalation in the Russian response to American sanctions over the Kremlin’s intervention in the 2016 presidential elections.
The United States and Russia have expelled dozens of each other’s diplomats before – but Sunday’s statement, made by Putin in an interview with the Rossiya-1 television channel, indicated the single largest forced reduction in embassy staff, comparable only to the closing of the American diplomatic presence in the months following the Communist revolution in 1917.
In the interview, Putin said that the number of American diplomatic and technical personnel will be capped at 455 – equivalent to the number of their Russian counterparts working in the United States. Currently, close to 1,200 employees work at the United States’ embassy and consulates in Russia, according to U.S. and Russian data.
“More than a thousand employees — diplomats and technical employees – have worked and are still working in Russia these days,” Putin told journalist Vladimir Solovyov on a nationally televised news show Sunday evening. “Some 755 of them will have to terminate their activity.”
The Kremlin had said Friday, as the Senate voted to strengthen sanctions on Russia, that some American diplomats would be expelled, but the size of the reduction is dramatic. It covers the main embassy in Moscow, as well as missions in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok.
“This is a landmark moment,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a journalist for the newspaper Kommersant who regularly travels with Putin and has interviewed him extensively over the past 17 years, told the Post in an interview on Friday. “His patience has seriously run out, and everything that he’s been putting off in this conflict, he’s now going to do.”
The Russian government is also seizing two diplomatic properties – a dacha, or country house, in a leafy neighborhood in Moscow, and a warehouse – following the decision by the Obama administration in December to take possession of two Russian mansions in the United States.
The move comes as it has become apparent that Russia has abandoned its hopes for better relations with the United States under a Trump administration.
During the interview, Putin said that he expected relations between the United States and Russia to worsen, and that Russa would likely come up with other measures to counter American financial sanctions, which were passed by the House and Senate last week and which President Donald Trump has said he will sign.
The reduction in U.S. diplomatic and technical staff is a response to President Barack Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in December in response to the alleged Russian hacking of the mail servers of the Democratic National Committee. The United States also revoked access to two Russian diplomatic compounds on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and on Long Island. American officials said they were used for intelligence collection.
It is not yet clear how the State Department will reduce its staff in Russia. Many of the 1,200 employees are local hires and support staff, some hired to help with a significant expansion of the U.S. embassy compound in Moscow.
The move increases the likelihood of new, perhaps asymmetrical reprisals by the United States in coming days.
Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia, tweeted Sunday: “If these cuts are real, Russians should expect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to US.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Andrew Roth