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Kremlin Says Up To U.S. To Decide Which Diplomatic Staff To Cut

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)

The Kremlin says it is up to the United States to determine which members of its diplomatic and support staff in Russia will be cut after Moscow demanded that Washington drastically reduce personnel numbers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on July 31 that Russian citizens working at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Russia could be among the 755 staff to go.

"There are not that many [U.S.] diplomats [in Russia]," Peskov said. "We are talking about diplomats, people without diplomatic status, and local hires -- that is, Russian citizens who work [at the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Russia]."

Moscow ordered the reduction in U.S. diplomatic staff after U.S. lawmakers passed a bill that would impose additional sanctions on Russia and prevent President Donald Trump from easing the most punitive measures without congressional approval.

"There was no point in waiting" for Trump to sign the sanctions legislation, Peskov said.

The White House said on July 28 that Trump, whose veto would almost certainly be overridden by Congress if he rejected the bill, plans to sign it.

Severely Strained Relations

Russia's demand that the United States cut hundreds of personnel at its Moscow embassy and consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok, is likely to add damage to a relationship that is already severely strained.

Russia and the United States are at odds over issues including Moscow's aggression in Ukraine, its backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and its alleged interference in the U.S. election that put Trump in the White House.

Putin and other Russian officials had long voiced hope for warmer ties under Trump, who repeatedly expressed a desire to improve relations.

But the Russian move suggests those hopes have faded substantially in Moscow amid U.S. investigations into Russia's alleged meddling and whether there was any collusion between Russia and associates of Trump, who seemed to be clearly favored by the Kremlin over his Democratic election rival Hillary Clinton.

Trump denies there was any collusion, and Russia has denied it interfered in the election despite substantial evidence and a finding announced in January by the U.S. intelligence community.

'Uncalled-For Act'

Speaking in Estonia on July 31, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the United States would not be deterred from its goals by Moscow's demand.

"We hope for better days, for better relations with Russia. But recent diplomatic action taken by Moscow will not deter the commitment of the United States of America to our security, the security of our allies, and the security of freedom-loving nations around the world,” Pence said.

The U.S. State Department called the Russian move an "regrettable and uncalled-for act" and said Washington was considering a possible response.

"We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it," a State Department statement said on July 30.

Pence told Fox News in a July 30 interview that Trump had made it "very clear that very soon he will sign the sanctions."

"But at the same time, as we make our intentions clear, we expect Russian behavior to change," Pence said.

The State Department has also said it hopes that Russia will take steps to improve the relationship, while Russian officials assert that the onus is on the United States.

Peskov said that the United States needs to recover from what he called "political sczizophremia" and show the "political will" to ease strains in the relationship.

"We are interested in a steady development of our ties and are sorry to note that we are still far from that," he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on July 28 that Washington must reduce its diplomatic staff to 455 people by September 1.

The Russian Foreign Ministry had previously said that Washington must reduce its diplomatic staff to 455 people by September 1.

It said that is the number of Russian diplomatic staff in the United States after Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, expelled 35 Russian diplomats in December -- a response to alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and ill-treatment of U.S. diplomats in Russia.

'Quite Painful'

Initial news alerts -- including from Russia's state-run TASS news agency -- on July 30 said Putin had ordered 755 U.S. diplomats to leave the country, though it later became clear he was talking about overall staff reductions at U.S. diplomatic facilities. Not all of the individuals ordered to cease their work would be U.S. citizens kicked out of the country.

It was not immediately clear how many reassignments the forced drawdown would entail at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and at the three U.S. consulates in Russia.

A 2013 report by the State Department Inspector General said that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, employed 1,279 staff, including 934 "locally employed" staff and 301 U.S. "direct-hire" staff.

A chart in the report gave a slightly different figure, indicating that there were a total of 1,200 staff, including 867 "foreign nationals." It did not say how many of those were Russian.

"Unless we brought in hundreds of Americans to build the new embassy [building, there is] no way that we have 700 Americans at [the] embassy," Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia in 2012-2014, wrote on Twitter.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also said earlier that, as of August 1, the United States would be barred from using warehouses that it has used in Moscow and from a modest guesthouse property in the capital's leafy Serebryanny Bor district.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow late on July 31 accused Russia of blocking staff who were seeking to retrieve their belongings from the guesthouse property before the August 1 cutoff date.

Maria Olson, a spokeswoman for the embassy, told RFE/RL that diplomats were prevented from entering the property as of July 30.

The seizure of diplomatic property appeared to be a direct response to the Obama administration's decision to seize two Russian diplomatic compounds, one in Maryland and one in New York State, when it expelled the 35 diplomats in December.

Putin surprised many people in both countries by declining to retaliate immediately over the expelled diplomats and seized properties -- a decision that was widely seen as a gesture to Trump, who was weeks away from his January 20 inauguration at the time.

Putin said in the July 30 interview that the reduced U.S. diplomatic presence would be "quite painful" and added that he did not expect ties with Washington to improve "any time soon."

"We have waited long enough, hoping that the situation would perhaps change for the better," he told Russian television host Vladimir Solovyov. "But it seems that even if the situation is changing, it's not for any time soon," Putin said.

With reporting by AFP, TASS, AP, The New York Times, Reuters, RIA Novosti, and Bloomberg
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