Donald Trump

‘This was aimed not at Trump, but at America’: Russia orders hundreds of US staff out as payback for sanctions

United States given until September 1 to bring the total number of diplomatic and technical personnel down 455

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 July, 2017, 11:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 5:07am

Russia ordered the US to slash hundreds of embassy and other personnel in the country in a dramatic and sweeping retaliation to the passage of a new sanctions bill in the United States Congress.

The order means the US would have to cut “hundreds” of personnel at its embassy and consulates in Russia, according to a diplomat familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity.

US officials didn’t immediately comment on how many would be affected.

Late on Thursday, the Senate voted 98 to 2 in favour of a bill passed earlier by the House that strengthens existing sanctions on Russia and gives Congress the power to block President Donald Trump from lifting them. The White House has given mixed messages about whether Trump will sign the legislation at a time when his presidential campaign is under investigation over possible collusion with Moscow.

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There are far more American diplomats in our country than Russian diplomats in America
Vyacheslav Nikonov

The Russian reaction was swifter and harsher than many officials had anticipated. It threatened to cast the two nuclear-armed powers into a new spiral of tensions even as relations are already at their lowest point since the cold war. For Trump, the worsening conflict poses a dilemma between his desire to build ties with Russia and mounting congressional opposition to that effort.

“We don’t exclude any measures to bring the out-of-control Russophobes who are now setting the tone on Capitol Hill to their senses,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, while threatening further retaliation if the US took new steps to punish Russia for the latest moves.

The US embassy denounced the move but didn’t comment further. Russian officials said it would be far more than the 35 Russian diplomats the US ordered out in December in protest of alleged Russian meddling in the election last year.

The Foreign Ministry said in a website statement that the US had until September 1 to bring the total number of diplomatic and technical personnel in Russia to 455, the same number as it said Russia has in the US.

“There are far more American diplomats in our country than Russian diplomats in America,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a senior member of the lower house of parliament, according to Tass. “The US will have to send out of our country far more than 30 diplomats.”

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In the wake of the announcement, Russia’s benchmark Micex Index extended declines, retreating as much as 1.6 per cent, the biggest intraday drop in six weeks.

Russia had originally threatened the ouster of diplomats and seizure of property in December after the US moves at the time. But President Vladimir Putin delayed the retaliatory steps in what officials said was an olive branch to the incoming Trump administration.

But the Kremlin’s hopes for better relations under Trump haven’t materialised as the probes of alleged Russian meddling in the US vote have widened in recent months. The first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin, in Germany earlier this month failed to yield a breakthrough.

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin didn’t wait for Trump’s reaction to the sanctions bill because “the form in which it emerged from the Senate had greater significance”. In effect, he said, it’s “almost final”.

“We did everything we could to save relations from collapse but the Americans did just the opposite,” Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the upper house of parliament, wrote on Facebook.

US Ambassador John Tefft “expressed his strong disappointment and protest” at the Russian move, the embassy said in an emailed statement, noting that the notification has been forwarded to Washington for review.

In addition to the ouster of personnel, the ministry also suspended US access to a recreation retreat and warehouse in Moscow, effective August 1. Russia said it reserved the right to take further measures if the US retaliates.

“In the current circumstances, any attempt to improve ties with the US is a waste of time,” said Sergei Karaganov, a foreign-policy analyst. “The US has become a totally hostile power and Russia is acting accordingly. This was aimed not at Trump, but at America.”

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Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said further “asymmetric” responses to the US move are possible.

“Sometimes it’s not necessary to announce sanctions, but you can move in such a way that everyone understands without loud words,” he said.

The US bill, which also imposes new sanctions on Iran and North Korea, had been delayed while lawmakers resolved procedural issues and revised language that energy companies said would prevent many overseas deals.

The Russia sanctions were an unusual signal of disapproval of Trump from congressional Republicans. Lawmakers say they want to prevent the president from acting on his own to lift penalties imposed by the previous administration for meddling in last year’s US election and for aggression in Ukraine. House and Senate committees and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are examining possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The legislation puts Trump in a difficult position. Signing the measure would dilute his power. But rejecting it could lead to an embarrassing veto override, as the bill cleared both chambers by wide margins, and lead to criticism that he’s seeking to protect Russia.

An official in the White House wouldn’t say whether Trump would sign it, saying only that they are reviewing the bill and that the administration supports sanctions against the three countries.