Moscow has begun to implement the first steps in its response to Washington's unilateral imposition of sanctions by ordering the drastic reduction of U.S. diplomatic and technical personnel at its embassies and consulates.
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Beginning September 1, the U.S. State Department will be expected to lower its diplomatic staff in Russia to no more than 455 employees. The measure – which will apply to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as well as its three consulates general in other parts of the country – is intended to bring the U.S. diplomatic presence to a level of parity with the Russian presence in the United States.
The reduction of the U.S. diplomatic presence by 755 staffers – from a current headcount of around 1,200 – was described by Russian officials Sunday as a “long, long overdue” retaliation against U.S. provocations that reached an apex during the past week with the branding of Russia as a “hostile regime” and the imposition of a severe sanctions package, described as the worst since the end of the Cold War.
“After the Senate … voted so overwhelmingly on a completely weird and unacceptable piece of legislation, it was the last drop,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Sunday on ABC's Last Week. “If the U.S. side decides to move further towards further deterioration, we will answer. We will respond in kind … We have a very rich toolbox at our disposal.”
The move will be accompanied by the seizure of two diplomatic properties, which must be vacated by August 1 – a move intended to mirror the seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds in the United States by the administration of former President Barack Obama.
"Our recreation centers that are Russia’s property and that enjoy full diplomatic immunity have become a target of such barbaric invasion," Ryabkov explained in a separate interview with Rossiya-1 television cited by TASS news agency. "They have become a toy in the hands of those who have only been seeking a pretext to further worsen the already poisoned atmosphere of relations with Russia."
Moscow's move comes in response to a bipartisan resolution passed on Thursday by the U.S. Senate in support of the "Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act." U.S. President Donald Trump has signaled that he intends to sign the bill, which disallows efforts by the White House to ease the sanctions.
The package will impact a broad range of Russian industries and especially its energy sector, including the high-profile Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream pipelines. Russian and European analysts claim the sanctions reflect an ulterior motive whereby the European Union, denied access to Russian liquefied natural gas, will be forced to purchase energy products from the United States instead.
Moscow was previously circumspect in its responses to Washington's imposition of back-to-back sanctions, exercising restraint in the hope that Trump's arrival in office would signal a breakthrough in relations between the Kremlin and the White House. The Russian government has protested U.S. allegations of interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called “slanderous” in a Friday phone conversation with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement issued Friday blasted the United States for “hiding behind its exceptionalism” and behaving “arrogantly.”
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“The adoption of the new sanctions bill is an obvious indication that relations with Russia are in thrall to the political infighting in the United States,” the foreign ministry stated. “Moreover, the new bill sets a goal to create a dishonest competitive advantage for the U.S. in the global economy through the use of political means. This blackmail aimed at restricting Russia’s cooperation with its foreign partners threatens many countries and international businesses.”
“Despite Washington’s constant outbursts, we have adhered to responsible and reserved behavior and have not responded to express provocations until now,” the ministry statement added. "However, the latest events confirm that certain circles in the United States are fixated on Russophobia and open confrontation with our country.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin likewise denounced Washington's measures in an interview with Rossiya-1 TV, noting that Moscow's patience had come to an end.
"We've been waiting for quite a long time that maybe something would change for the better, we had hopes that the situation would change,” the Russian president said in quotes cited by RT. “It looks like it's not going to change in the near future ... I decided that it is time for us to show that we will not leave anything unanswered."