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After Retaliating Against U.S. Sanctions, Moscow Says Cooperation Still Possible


Russian police stand guard in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. (file photo)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his U.S. counterpart on July 28 that Moscow was forced to respond to Congress's tough new sanctions legislation but is still willing to try to improve ties with Washington.

In a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov said Moscow's announcement earlier in the day of a reduction in U.S. Embassy personnel and planned diplomatic property seizures were necessitated by "a series of Washington's hostile steps," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

But "Lavrov confirmed that our country is still ready to normalize bilateral relations with the United States and to cooperate on the most important international issues," it said. "However, this is possible only on the basis of equality, mutual respect, and a balancing of interests."

The ministry said the two top diplomats "agreed to maintain contact on a range of bilateral issues." The State Department did not provide a reading on the conversation.

Russia's new envoy at the United Nations also extended an offer of cooperation on July 28 even as he said the sanctions legislation has plunged U.S.-Russian relations to "rock bottom" levels lower than those reached during the Cold War.

"We will continue to cooperate," Russian UN ambassador Vasily Nebenzya said in New York. "The Americans cannot do without us and we cannot do without them. Such is reality. Certainly, we will be working to resolve those unprecedented problems that have emerged in the world before our very eyes."

Russia earlier in the day directed the United States to reduce the size of its diplomatic staff in the country and said it will seize a U.S. Embassy dacha and storage warehouses in Moscow, hitting back at the sanctions bill passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. Senate and sent to the White House on July 27.

The Russian response adds to severe strains in the relationship between Washington and Moscow, which has been badly damaged by Russia's aggression in Ukraine, its role in the war in Syria, and its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

“The passage of the new law on sanctions shows with all obviousness that relations with Russia have become hostage to the domestic political battle within the United States,” the Foreign Ministry said, adding that "the latest events show that in well-known circles in the United States, Russophobia and a course toward open confrontation with our country have taken hold.”

The statement said that the United States must reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 people by September 1, saying that is the number of diplomats and other personnel at embassies and consulates in the United States after former President Barack Obama's administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats in December -- a response to alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. vote and ill-treatment of U.S. diplomats in Russia.

The current number of U.S. personnel in Russia was not immediately clear. Russian news agency Interfax cited a source it did not identify as saying the United States would have to cut "hundreds of diplomatic and technical staff," while state-run RIA Novosti cited a source it did not identify as saying the number was 200 to 300.

The Russian statement also said that as of August 1, the United States would be barred from using warehouses that it has used in Moscow and from a modest property in the capital's leafy Serebryanny Bor district that is used by the U.S. Embassy mainly for events such as parties and barbecues.

It warned that Russia "reserves the right" to respond in kind if the United States expels any more Russian diplomats.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Maria Olson, told RFE/RL that the embassy had received the notification and that Ambassador John Tefft "expressed his strong disappointment and protest."

"We passed it to Washington to review," Olson said.

Russian media reported that Tefft was summoned to the Foreign Ministry.

If Trump signs the sanctions bill into law, he would be unable -- without approval from Congress -- to restore Russian access to two diplomatic compounds, one in Maryland and one in New York state, that the Obama administration seized when it expelled the 35 diplomats in December.

At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised many people in both countries by declining to retaliate -- a gesture to Trump, who was due to take office in weeks and repeatedly indicated during the presidential campaign he would seek to improve ties with Moscow.

But relations remained tense after Trump's January 20 inauguration, amid multiple investigations into what the U.S. intelligence community says was an "influence campaign" ordered by Putin in an attempt to undermine faith in U.S. democracy and denigrate Trump's Democratic rival on the November 8 ballot, Hillary Clinton. The Justice Department and lawmakers are also examining whether there was any collusion between Russia and associates of Trump.

Before the July 28 announcement, Russian officials had stepped up their calls for the unconditional restoration of access to the diplomatic compounds in recent weeks, saying Moscow's patience was running out.

The Foreign Ministry statement called the measures Obama took in December a "violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and generally accepted diplomatic practices."

It said that the sanctions legislation confirmed what it called the "extreme aggressiveness" of the United States in international affairs, asserting that the United States is "persistently taking coarse anti-Russia actions" on the basis of "absolutely contrived allegations of Russian meddling into its internal affairs."

The Foreign Ministry statement came a day after Putin, speaking before the U.S. Senate passed the sanctions bill but after the House of Representatives endorsed it, said that the sanctions would be "absolutely unlawful" and that Russia would eventually retaliate for what he called U.S. "insolence toward our country."

U.S. lawmakers said the legislation was necessary in light of Russia's actions, including evidence of meddling in the election.

"The United States of America needs to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy," Senator John McCain, an influential Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Service Committee, said on July 27.

The White House said on July 28 that Trump would sign the bill, which would also impose new sanctions on Iran and North Korea. Strong bipartisan support in Congress meant a veto almost certainly would have been overridden.

In addition to hitting Russia with new sanctions, the bill prevents Trump from easing or lifting most of the sanctions on Moscow without approval from Congress.

With reporting by Christopher Miller in Moscow, AP, The New York Times, Reuters, Bloomberg, TASS, AFP, and Interfax
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