The decision leaves the U.S. Embassy in Minsk with just four staff members, down from more than 30 at the beginning of the year, and has cast a pall on the future of U.S.-Belarusian diplomatic relations.
The U.S. decision to comply with Belarus's demand that it further reduce its embassy staff in Minsk appears to have been toned down significantly at the last minute, in order to give Belarus time to reconsider while Washington mulls a harsher response.
The decision to comply was a far cry from reports that the United States would respond with a tit-for-tat measure that would effectively shut down Belarus's diplomatic offices in New York and Washington, and close the U.S. Embassy in Minsk entirely.
Acknowledging "some confusion" about the tack the United States would take, State Department spokesman Tom Casey clarified the situation during a news briefing in Washington on May 1, saying the diplomats "were asked to leave Minsk within 72 hours. And since that constitutes a formal demand for our diplomats to leave, we're going to comply with that deadline given to us."
AP, citing State Department officials, had reported that the U.S. charge d'affaires in Belarus, Jonathan Moore, was at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on May 1 preparing to announce the much stricter measures when he was given new marching orders.
The Foreign Ministry, in a statement issued after Moore's visit, said only that the U.S. diplomat had "confirmed that the officials who have been declared persona non grata will be leaving Belarus within the specified time frame."
The U.S. Embassy staff in Belarus has been repeatedly reduced this year to comply with Belarusian demands. In January, the embassy had 35 diplomats working in Mink. Just four envoys will be working there once those declared persona non grata are evacuated by the 72-hour deadline, which falls on May 3.
Casey stressed the seriousness with which Washington considers Minsk's latest effort to cut the number of U.S. diplomats working in Belarus.
"This is an unwarranted and unjustified action. It is something that is being done solely as a result of the U.S. support for democracy and human rights activists in Belarus," Casey said. "And it's unfortunate because, frankly, what it mainly does is serves to further isolate Belarus and take Belarus further away from its own stated objectives, which is to be engaged and be a full participant in the international community."
But the response also came with a warning that State Department officials, speaking anonymously to AP, said is designed to give Minsk time to reconsider.
"We've warned them that there is a range of actions that we can take. We've warned them that by [expelling] this extensive portion of our staff, they are making it very hard for us to be able to have a functioning mission in that country and that that may require some additional actions," Casey said.
Those actions reportedly center on the expulsion of all six Belarusian diplomats currently stationed in the United States, at the country's embassy in Washington and its consulate in New York.
When questioned about how the removal of Belarusian diplomats might affect U.S.-Belarusian diplomacy, Casey commented that, while it would technically be possible to have diplomatic relations, "in effect, it's awfully hard to do business without anybody there."
According to AP, citing State Department sources, the United States' plans to shutter its embassy in Minsk had reached the stage of finding a third country to represent its interests in Belarus.
When asked to confirm if the United States had pursued such an option, Casey said, "I haven't gotten out the blue list and started calling other embassies yet, no."
Earlier this week, the U.S. government deplored the recent cyberattack on the website of RFE/RL's Belarus Service. The State Department said the attack was "another example of the assault against free and independent media in Belarus."
The cyberattack knocked out eight of RFE/RL's broadcast services' websites. Although it is unclear who was behind the attack, the chief target appears to be the Belarus Service.