Russian visa restrictions for U.S. diplomatic personnel forced the closure of two consulates, the U.S. ambassador said, blaming Moscow for shutdowns that will leave Russians and American citizens living in Russia with a single diplomatic outpost to turn to in the sprawling country.
In an interview with RFE/RL, John Sullivan also suggested that new Russian legislation targeting so-called foreign agents will be "intolerable" if enforced, and that the imprisonment of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan on espionage charges was a "shocking miscarriage of justice" and a hurdle to the improvement of badly strained relations.
Sullivan accused the Russian government of forcing the United States to shutter the consulates in the Urals region city of Yekaterinburg and in Vladivostok, on the Pacific Coast.
Operations had already been suspended at the two posts due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sullivan said, but the cap of 455 visas imposed earlier by Moscow for all American diplomatic visas had forced the decision on the two consulates. The Yekaterinburg closure is temporary, he said.
"We took the decision we took because it's part of…broader problems in a bilateral diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia, which have extended to a so-called visa impasse," he said in the interview on December 22. "We can't get visas for U.S. personnel to come to work at our consulates in Yekaterinburg [and] Vladivostok, or the embassy in Moscow."
"And without those personnel who are able to perform essential functions for health and safety risks, the risk is increasing that there could be a fire, or other safety issues," he said. "There are always potential threats to our posts.... So what's happened is we can't get management officers, security officers visas."
The Russian Foreign Ministry and its chief spokeswoman did not immediately respond to e-mailed requests for comment and to a query sent via mobile phone.
The 455-visa cap was imposed as part of the tit-for-tat diplomatic punishment that began in the waning days of President Barack Obama's administration, and continued into President Donald Trump's tenure.
The U.S. government ordered the closure of Russian diplomatic compounds in rural Maryland and New York state in early 2017. Later that year, the Russian Consulate in San Francisco and two other diplomatic facilities, in Washington and New York City, were shuttered.
In 2018, the Russian Consulate in Seattle was ordered closed in response to the Novichok poisoning in England of a former Russian military intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal. Russia retaliated, ordering the closure of the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg.
Sullivan's comments come as his tenure as Washington's main diplomat in Moscow may be nearing its end, with President-elect Joe Biden taking office on January 20.
And they come as the U.S.-Russian relationship continues a downward spiral that stretches back at least into Obama's first term and has spanned the Trump administration's four years in office.
In an interview on December 23 with the Interfax news agency, the top Russian diplomat who handles relations with Washington signaled that Moscow had little optimism that the downward slide would be reversed, and accused top Biden officials of what he called "Russophobia."
"We are going from bad to worse. This was very typical for the past four years and so far there is no feeling that this trend has exhausted itself," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying.
"It would be strange to expect good things from people, many of whom made their careers on Russophobia and throwing mud at my country," he said, without naming anyone or offering details about this remark.
In Washington, meanwhile, the U.S. government is grappling with what some experts say is the largest cyberbreach, or hack, of federal computer systems ever, and U.S. officials say Russian intelligence agencies are to blame.
Biden spoke about the problem on December 22, saying that the Trump administration had been caught off-guard and that there would be a U.S. response once a formal finding of blame is made. He did not describe the potential response.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blamed Russia, as has Attorney General William Barr. Trump, however, has suggested that China might be to blame.
Asked about the hack, Sullivan said he could not himself place blame on Moscow, pending confirmation from U.S. intelligence.
However, "there's no doubt that elements of the Russian government, the Russian security services, have engaged in sustained campaign of cyberattacks and influence on the United States," he told RFE/RL.
"But it wouldn't shock me" if it was Russia, he said. "In fact, it is consistent with behavior we've seen stretching back not just to this administration, but the prior administration as well."
"We have to continue to message the Russian government and to impose costs on those who would try to degrade, exploit, and damage our cyber infrastructure, and that would include potentially, a whole host of things," Sullivan said. He declined to say what exactly that would entail.
Sullivan also spoke a day before the Russian lower house of parliament gave final approval to a package of new legal measures that will broaden, and tighten, restrictions under the country's eight-year-old "foreign agent" law.
The original law requires organizations who receive any sort of foreign funding or support to report their activities or face financial audits. The new measures, which must be passed by the upper house and signed by Putin to become law, would expand the scope of individuals and groups that can fall under the "foreign agent" label and add new restrictions and registration and reporting requirements for such groups.
They would also require the media to note the label whenever such a designated group is mentioned, and introduces possible criminal liability for individual journalists and bloggers in Russia.
Russian and foreign rights groups have denounced the measures, which Sullivan said appeared to be focused on U.S. media organizations like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) but potentially could be broadened to target other foreign media in Russia.
"This is just the start of what could be a very dangerous undertaking more broadly, not just for the United States," he said.
While it is broader than a bilateral issue, Sullivan said, the new legislation "has gotten the attention of the most senior officials of the U.S. government who have significant concerns about the potential for restrictions" on media organizations like RFE/RL.
"And if there is follow-through," he said, he is "pretty confident" that "there will be a response by the United States, because it would be intolerable."
Paul Whelan, Aleksei Navalny
In the interview, Sullivan repeated past criticism of Russia for the jailing of Whelan, the American who was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 on charges of espionage. A former U.S. Marine, Whelan, who said he was in Russia at the time for a friend's wedding, was later convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Whelan's family has said he was convicted on sham evidence, in a closed trial that violated basic judicial norms. His lawyers have suggested that Russia was seeking to negotiate Whelan's release in exchange for the release of one or more Russians serving time in U.S. prisons on various charges, including notorious convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
"It's really a shocking miscarriage of justice for Paul," Sullivan said. "It's a significant impediment to improved relations between the United States and Russia."
One round of U.S. expulsions of Russian diplomats followed the March 2018 poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in England. A sophisticated military grade nerve agent called Novichok was blamed for that and for the death of a British woman who came in contact with the substance a few months later.
Two years later, after Russian anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny nearly died on a flight from Siberia to Moscow, German authorities blamed a Novichok-related chemical.
The Skripal poisoning, Sullivan said, was "an extraterritorial assassination, extrajudicial attempted murder of an individual using a banned chemical weapon."
He said the United States had worked through the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, an international treaty watchdog known as the OPCW, and in cooperation with Germany, whose government was quick to accuse Russia of the Navalny poisoning.
"It's also not just a bilateral problem between Germany and Russia. It's a problem for all countries that are concerned about human rights and enforcing the prohibitions on the development and use of chemical weapons," he said.
"Our initial focus has been on the OPCW. But I wouldn't say that it's necessarily going to be to be limited to that," he said.
Sullivan, who served as the No. 2 official at the State Department before being confirmed as ambassador in December 2019, declined to say if he would be staying on as ambassador; typically, U.S. ambassadors submit their resignation upon the arrival of a new president.
"There's a breach of trust, I think it's safe to say, between the U.S. government and the Russian government. But I for one, and I know many Americans have trust and faith in the Russian people," he said.
"My hope is that the [consulate closure] is temporary, and that we can stop digging the hole that we've dug on our respective sides, restore the trust, and take advantage of that…broader, deeper relationship between the United States and Russia," he said.