September 1, 2017 10:19:34 AM
WASHINGTON -- Escalating a diplomatic tit-for-tat, the United States abruptly ordered Russia on Thursday to shutter its San Francisco consulate and close offices in Washington and New York, intensifying tensions between the former Cold War foes. Washington gave Moscow 48 hours to comply.
The Trump administration described its action as retaliation for the Kremlin's "unwarranted and detrimental" demand earlier this month that the U.S. cut its diplomatic staff in Russia. But Moscow declared it a major escalation, with a top Russian lawmaker saying the move heralded "the hot phase of diplomatic war."
"The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. Still, she said the U.S. hoped both countries could now move toward "improved relations" and "increased cooperation."
It was a harsh welcome to Washington for new Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, who arrived only hours after the U.S. announcement. At the airport, Antonov cited a maxim of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin as he urged caution and professionalism.
"We don't need hysterical impulses," Russian news agencies quoted Antonov as saying.
The closures on both U.S. coasts marked perhaps the most drastic diplomatic measure by the United States against Russia since 1986, near the end of the Cold War, when the nuclear-armed powers expelled dozens of each other's diplomats.
And it comes amid some of the broadest strains in their relationship ever since. The two countries have clashed over the wars in Ukraine and Syria, but most significantly over American allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to boost President Donald Trump's chances of victory. Investigations continue into whether Trump's campaign colluded with Moscow.
By Saturday, the Russians must close their consulate in San Francisco and an official residence there. Though Russia can keep its New York consulate and Washington embassy, trade missions housed in satellite offices in both of those cities must shut down, a senior Trump administration official said. The official briefed reporters on a conference call on condition of anonymity.
Outside the consulate building high atop a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay, there were no visible signs of an exodus Thursday. Consular officials walked in and out of the stately building, and Russian citizens who had scheduled appointments said they were able to pick up or renew their passports.
"It's sad, because I've lived many years in the U.S. and there are strong ties between the countries," said Kate Stanton, a San Francisco real estate agent who said she holds dual U.S.-Russian citizenship.
American counterintelligence officials have long kept a watchful eye on Russia's outpost in San Francisco, concerned that people posted to the consulate as diplomats were engaged in espionage. The U.S. late last year kicked out several Russians who posted there, calling it a response to election interference.
The U.S. isn't expelling any Russian officials this time. Those who work at the shuttered offices can be reassigned elsewhere in the United States, the senior official said.
One of the buildings is believed to be leased, but Russia will maintain ownership over the others, said the official, adding that Moscow can determine if it wants to sell them or otherwise dispose of the properties.
The forced closures are the latest in an intensifying exchange of diplomatic broadsides.
In December, former President Barack Obama kicked out dozens of Russian officials, closed Russian recreational compounds in New York and Maryland, and imposed sanctions on Russian people and businesses. Russian President Vladimir Putin withheld from retaliating. The next month, Trump took office after campaigning on promises to improve U.S.-Russia ties.
But earlier this month, Trump begrudgingly signed into law stepped-up sanctions on Russia that Congress pushed to prevent him from easing up on Moscow. The Kremlin retaliated by telling the U.S. to cut embassy and consulate staff down to 455 personnel, from a level hundreds higher.
Russia said 755 personnel in all would have to go to reach the new limit. The U.S. never confirmed how many diplomatic staff it had in the country at the time. As of Thursday, the U.S. has complied with the order to reduce staff to 455, officials said.
The reductions are having consequences for Russia. The U.S. has temporarily suspended non-immigrant visa processing for Russians seeking to visit the United States and will only resume soon at a "much-reduced rate." The U.S. will process visas only at the embassy in Moscow, meaning Russians can no longer apply at U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok.
Despite the exchange of penalties, there have been narrow signs of U.S.-Russian cooperation that have transcended the worsening ties. In July, Trump and Putin signed off on a deal with Jordan for a cease-fire in southwest Syria. The U.S. says the truce has largely held.
But the Kremlin may now respond in kind. American officials argued that Russia should refrain from retaliation, noting that Moscow's ordering of U.S. diplomatic cuts was premised on bringing the two countries' diplomatic presences into "parity."
"The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation's desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides," the State Department's Nauert said.
Both countries now maintain three consulates on each other's territory and ostensibly similar numbers of diplomats. Exact numbers are difficult to independently verify.
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