Ambassador John Tefft summoned to foreign ministry to be told of decision, which may cause hundreds of job losses
Russia has ordered the US to reduce its diplomatic presence in Russia potentially forcing hundreds of embassy employees in the country to leave their jobs after Congress approved a new wave of sanctions against Moscow over its interference in last years US election.
The move appears to signal the end of Moscows hopes for a new and improved relationship with the US under Donald Trumps presidency.
Russian officials portrayed the demand as a long-delayed response to repeated unfriendly moves by Washington. With Trump embroiled in a scandal that refuses to die over alleged ties between his campaign and Russia, Congress approved the sanctions against Russia this week. Without waiting for Trump to sign the new sanctions into statute, Russia announced its response.
The US ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, was summoned to the foreign ministry on Friday morning to be given the news. A statement positioned on the ministrys website said the number of diplomatic and technical personnels across US diplomatic mission in Russia should not exceed 455.
The foreign ministry said it would also close down the embassy dacha ( summertime mansion) on the outskirts of Moscow and repeal access to warehouse space. The restrictions on the properties come into force on 1 August, while the reduction in diplomatic presence is to take place by 1 September, the Russians said.
The ministry said the figure of 455 was equivalent to the number of Russian diplomatic staff accredited for work in the US. The figure refers to all embassy faculty, including both US envoys and local hires.
There was confusion over exactly what the 455 figure would mean for the staffing of US missions in Russia. A spokesman for the embassy declined to comment on numbers, saying only: We have received the Russian government notification. Ambassador Tefft conveyed his strong disappointment and protest. We have passed the notification back to Washington for review.
Reuters quoted an embassy source stating that there are about 300 US envoys based in Moscow, with about 1,100 personnel altogether between the Moscow embassy and three consulates across the country. If this figure is accurate, the Russian move would entail more than 600 employees would have to leave.
A source in Russias foreign ministry told Interfax news agency it would be up to the Americans to decide on staffing a modification to bring the number in line with the 455 figure. The Russians have not earmarked specific diplomats to be kicked out, as is usually the example with diplomatic expulsions.
The agency RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed Russian source who suggested that between 200 and 300 employees would have to be either fired or sent back to the US, in a process that would be very painful for the Americans.
The trigger for Fridays announcement was the new round of sanctions, but the move is also partially a response to the final act of Barack Obamas administration against Russia.
In December, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and the seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds in reprisal for Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Moscow made the unusual move of not answering reciprocally, allegedly after being given assurances that the incoming Trump administration would reverse the move.
However, this has not happened, and the political consensus in Washington backing farther sanctions against Moscow has solidified, with the House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelmingly passing a bill the coming week that targets Russia, North Korea and Iran.
On Thursday, Vladimir Putin said a Russian response to the new wave of sanctions was inevitable. We are behaving in a very restraint and patient way, but at some moment we will need to respond … Its impossible to endlessly tolerate this kind of insolence towards our country.
The president and other Russian officials have repeatedly denied any meddling in the US election, while US intelligence agencies say they have overwhelming evidence of a coordinated Russian campaign.
Russias statement on Friday said the US actions once again demonstrated the aggressive foreign policy of the United States that arrogantly ignores the positions and interests of other nations. The ministry told US upper-class were gripped by Russophobia and claimed Russia had behaved responsibly and with restraint.
The ministry said if the US side set out any further sanctions against Russia, they would be met with a symmetrical response.
Donald Trump still has to sign the new sanctions into law, and with the Russian measures not coming into effect until 1 September, there is a chance they could be repealed if Trump does not sign. However, the US president is under considerable pressure to appear tough on Russia given the scandals over Russian interference in the US election and alleged collusion between the Russians and members of his team.
There is also a possibility that the US and Russian sides could negotiate a bilateral increase in diplomatic presence before the Russian move comes into effect. Russian officials have been complaining for many weeks that US authorities are not granting visas to envoys it wants to send to the US to replace those who were expelled in December.
The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, spoke to his Russian equivalent, Sergei Lavrov, by telephone later on Friday. The Russian foreign minister told Tillerson Russia wants to normalise relations, and the pair agreed to maintain contact on a range of bilateral issues, the Russian ministry said in a statement.
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