The State Department ordered Russia to close three of its diplomatic facilities in the US on Thursday, hours after implementing
Russia’s demand that the US slash the number of diplomats at its Moscow embassy by roughly 60%.
“We still believe Russia’s decision to limit the size of our mission was unwarranted and detrimental, but we have implemented the decision,” a senior administration official told reporters during a conference call on Thursday. Russia ordered the cuts late last month in retaliation for the US’s new sanctions legislation that President Donald Trump begrudgingly signed.
The official said closing Russia’s consulate general in San Francisco and two annexes in Washington, DC, and New York City is a response to the “Russian desire for parity in the diplomatic relationship.”
The closures mark the latest development in a protracted tit-for-tat between Washington and Moscow that began last December, when President Barack Obama leveled new sanctions and expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US as punishment for Russia’s presidential election meddling.
The consulate in San Francisco was the “oldest and most established” of the four consulates Russia had operated within the US, according to the official. Russia still maintains more diplomatic and consular facilities in the US than the US has in Russia.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Thursday to inform him of the US’s decision, which must be implemented by September 2, according to the official. Lavrov said in a statement that Russia “regrets” the closures.
The US is not expelling any Russians from the US “at this time,” the official said, and all have been informed that they may be reassigned to other diplomatic posts in the US if they want to be.
“This strikes me as an appropriate response to Russia’s egregious expulsion of US personnel, and hopefully sends the message that the State Department will respond in kind to any further steps Russia may choose to take,” said Derek Chollet, a former special assistant to Obama and senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council.
“But this step also highlights once again the disconnect between Trump and his administration — for the last time we heard from the President on this issue he joked that he thanked Putin for reducing the size of the US government,” he added.
Career diplomats and foreign service officers were left “dumbfounded” and “frankly, insulted” after Trump thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month for the steep embassy cuts.
“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll and as far as I’m concerned,” Trump told reporters in his first public comments about the cuts. “There’s no real reason for them to go back. I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States. We’re going to save a lot of money.”
Trump doubled down a day later, telling reporters he was being “sarcastic” before saying again, “But really we’re going to save a lot of money.”
The administration official told reporters on Thursday that “the president was being sarcastic” and that the diplomatic personnel — both Russian and American — affected by Russia’s embassy cuts had been taken care of by the US “in different ways.”
The official would not elaborate on how many positions were cut or whether the employees had been transferred.
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