WASHINGTON -- The White House announced late on July 28 that U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to sign legislation strengthening sanctions against Russia over its alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
The surprise announcement came hours after Russia announced retaliatory measures over the legislation, ordering potentially deep cuts in U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia and the seizing some U.S. diplomatic property in Moscow.
Enactment of the legislation, which cements into law an array of strong sanctions against Russia for its alleged election meddling and aggression in Ukraine, dashes hopes of any immediate improvement in relations between Moscow and Washington as espoused by Trump during his campaign.
On July 25, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly backed the sanctions bill, 419-3, and the Senate rapidly followed their lead on a 98-2 vote.
In a statement on July 29, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the near unanimous votes "represent the strong will of the American people to see Russia take steps to improve relations with the United States."
Tillerson said he hoped for cooperation with Russia that would make the sanctions unnecessary.
Trump's decision acquiesced to the reality that Congress almost certainly could have overridden a veto of the legislation, fueled by bipartisan concern that media reports and investigations in Congress and the Justice Department recently have appeared to uncover some evidence of attempts by Russia to collude with Trump's election campaign.
But White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that a deciding factor was Trump's satifaction that he was able to secure changes in some "critical elements" of the bill which she did not identify.
The White House had objected to a key provision that requires Trump to get approval from Congress to waive any of the bill's sanctions against Russia, and that provision was not changed.
But other provisions barring U.S. energy companies from participating in oil and gas projects anywhere in the world if Russian energy firms are participating were modified after lobbying by the White House and American oil companies.
Also, House leaders added sanctions against North Korea to the bill, in a move that pleased the White House, officials said.
Another factor may have been Russia's offer to try to keep cooperating with the administration and improving relations, despite what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described as the "hostile" measures in the bill.
In a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, "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," the Russian Foreign Ministry said on July 28.
"However, this is possible only on the basis of equality, mutual respect, and a balancing of interests," it said.
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," he said.
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 bill cements into law existing sanctions on Russia over its alleged election meddling and aggression in Ukraine and adds new measures penalizing Russia's military intervention in Syria while requiring Trump to secure Congress' approval to ease or waive those sanctions. It also contains tough sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
“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,” Russia's 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.”
Russia directed the United States to reduce 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 in his response to alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election 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.
Russia 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.