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U.S. To Resume Visa Operations At Consulates In Russia, Months After Diplomatic Cuts


U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman (file photo)

U.S. consulates in three Russian cities will resume interviews for nonimmigrant-visa applicants next week, less than four months after those operations were suspended following Moscow's order for deep cuts in U.S. diplomatic staff.

In a statement on December 4, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said the consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok "will begin to offer limited interviews for nonimmigrant visas" on December 11.

"As Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. has said, we want Russians to travel to the United States, experience our culture firsthand, study at our universities, and do business with U.S. companies," it said.

"So we are pleased to resume these limited operations. We believe that people-to-people interactions and U.S.-Russian business ties are the bedrock to stability in the bilateral relationship."

However, it said that visas services "will not return to the level we maintained prior to the Russian Federation's unwarranted demand that we dramatically reduce the number of personnel at the U.S. Embassy and our three consulates," and that the embassy and three consulates "continue to operate with a significantly reduced staff" and the limited operations were "an unfortunate consequence of Russia's decision."

The United States suspended all nonimmigrant-visa operations in Russia on August 23, one step in an exchange of diplomatic restrictions that followed findings by the U.S. intelligence community that Moscow used cyberattacks and other methods in an "influence campaign" ordered by President Vladimir Putin in an effort aimed to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Intelligence officials also said Moscow developed a clear preference for Donald Trump over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

After the U.S. Congress passed a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia and making it harder for Trump to ease or lift existing measures, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on July 28 that Washington must reduce its diplomatic staff at the U.S. Embassy and consulates to 455 people by September 1. Putin later said that meant the United States must cut 755 staff members at the missions.

Limited nonimmigrant-visa operations resumed at the embassy in Moscow in September.

With ties continuing to deteriorate, Huntsman handed his credentials to Putin on October 3.

Russian officials initially voiced confidence that Trump's election would help improve relations, but those hopes appear to have faded substantially as the U.S. Justice Department and congressional committees investigate Moscow's alleged interference in the election and seek to determine whether associates of Trump colluded with Russia.

Putin denies that Russia meddled in the election despite what U.S. officials say is powerful evidence. Trump, who repeatedly indicated during the campaign that he wanted relations with Russia to improve, denies any collusion.

Russian officials have appeared careful to avoid blaming Trump for the persistent strains in ties.

'Foreign Agents' In Media

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on December 4 that in a broad sense, "our relations with the United States" were "aimed at cooperation."

However, she asserted in remarks to Russian lawmakers that "there are very many political forces in the West, including in the United States," that wanted to "return us to the era of the Cold War."

Zakharova was speaking about tension between Russia and the United States over allegations of interference by media outlets in politics.

A Russian bill enabling the government to designate any foreign media outlet a "foreign agent" sailed through parliament and was signed by Putin on November 25.

Russia says the law is a "symmetrical response" after state-funded channel RT -- which U.S. authorities accuse of spreading propaganda -- was required to register its U.S. operating unit under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

U.S. officials say it is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws are different and that Russia uses its "foreign agent" legislation to silence dissent and discourage a free exchange of ideas.

The new Russian media law leaves it up to the Justice Ministry to determine which foreign media outlets will be designated as foreign agents. Russian officials and lawmakers have indicated outlets that could be targeted include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Voice of America (VOA), CNN, and German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

The Justice Ministry has published a list on its website indicating that its first targets under the law may be nine media outlets connected with RFE/RL and VOA.

Zakharova said that media outlets designated as foreign agents would not be stripped of their accreditation with the ministry.

"I would like to point out that we shall by no means annul the Foreign Ministry accreditation of the U.S. media in question," Zakharova said at a meeting of the rules committee in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. "They will be able to go ahead with journalistic activity in Russia calmly and without any hindrances."

Zakharova also said that "nine or 10" U.S. media outlets would probably be barred from the Duma, adding that it was "those that are financed by the State Department" that would be subject to the ban.

Duma rules committee chief Olga Savastyanova said last week that all U.S. media could be barred, and that the lower chamber would discuss the issue on December 5-6. But Savastyanova said on December 4 that only media outlets that were designated as foreign agents will be barred.

The Duma's threat to ban U.S. media from the building came after the organization overseeing media access to the U.S. Congress stripped RT of its press credentials for the legislature.

The U.S. Justice Department required the RT affiliate to register in the wake of a January finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that RT and Russia's Sputnik news agency spread disinformation as part of the alleged Russian effort to influence the U.S. presidential election.

With reporting by Interfax, TASS, RIA Novosti, and REN TV
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