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Russia And U.S. Order Each Other To Close Diplomatic Posts

Sep 1, 2017
Originally published on September 1, 2017 6:27 am
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The Trump administration's reset with Russia appears to be a lost cause at this point. And the latest setback will hit the tech industry and tourism. The Kremlin's deadline for the U.S. to cut back its diplomatic representation in Russia is today. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the latest American reprisal.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The State Department says it has cut the size of its diplomatic missions in Russia to 455 positions, meeting the deadline Russia imposed. By tomorrow, the U.S. wants Russia to close its consulate in San Francisco and shutter two trade offices in Washington, D.C. and in New York City. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders says the U.S. hopes this will be it.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: We've taken a firm and measured action in response to Russia's unfortunate decision earlier this year. We want to halt the downward spiral. And we want to move forward towards better relations.

KELEMEN: A State Department official points out that the U.S. is not actually expelling any Russians. And this was a simple matter of parity. Now each country has three consulates in addition to their embassies. Sanders says President Trump still wants to cooperate with Russia.

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SANDERS: We're going to look for opportunities to do that. But we're also going to make sure that we make decisions that are best for our country.

KELEMEN: There are implications for this diplomatic downsizing. The U.S. will no longer provide visa services at its consulates, which means Russians will have to travel to the U.S. embassy in Moscow to apply to come here.

JIM COLLINS: That's a real burden in a country with nine time zones.

KELEMEN: That's former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Jim Collins. He says, for Russians living in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, the closure of Russia's consulate there could be a problem, too.

COLLINS: There are a lot of Russian citizens and people with whom they have relations on the West Coast, in particular the San Francisco area. And that's going to make it harder for them to get the services and so forth they expect from their government.

KELEMEN: Russia's consulate in San Francisco called it another unfriendly step. It also noted that last year, it issued more than 16,000 tourist visas for Americans to go to Russia. The question Ambassador Collins has is, how will this end?

COLLINS: The tit-for-tat diplomacy that's been going on now for some time has damaged both sides significantly in terms of the relations between us and the ability to do certain kinds of important work that we ought to be getting on with.

KELEMEN: The downturn started last year when the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian officials and closed down two compounds in response to Russia's meddling in U.S. elections. At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not respond. And Donald Trump praised him for that restraint. But when Congress passed a new sanctions bill against Russia this year, Putin ordered the U.S. to drastically cut its diplomatic staff. And Trump seemed to brush it off.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As far as I'm concerned, I'm very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll. There's no real reason for them to go back.

KELEMEN: The State Department says the American diplomats who were pulled out are still on the payroll, claiming Trump was just being sarcastic. Ambassador Collins had a message for both Washington and Moscow.

COLLINS: It's time to stop this and to find a way to begin conducting diplomacy again.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov later this month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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