Even as President Trump has refrained from directly criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, the State Department has been outspoken in condemning Russian transgressions and pressuring the government to change its behavior and rhetoric.
That has contributed to a “visa impasse,” as U.S. officials delicately phrase it, that has been growing since 2014, when the United States imposed sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Crimea. Since then, the diplomatic standoff has ballooned into a tit-for-tat visa war, with both sides expelling diplomats and closing each other’s consulates during rows over Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election and Moscow’s poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.
After years of failing to negotiate a solution, U.S. officials grew alarmed about the potential for a catastrophic fire or accident at the missions and their ability to keep the embassy in Moscow functioning. So in early December, the State Department notified Congress it would permanently close the consulate in Vladivostok near the Pacific and suspend operations at the consulate in Yekaterinburg in Russia’s industrial heartland.
“We had to decide structurally how we can address this,” said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk about the delicate, tangled relationship. “We’re running out of band aids to sustain our presence in those locations.”
The two consulates already had been effectively shuttered since March because of the pandemic. News that they would stay out of operation coincided with revelations that suspected Russian hackers had penetrated the computers of U.S. government agencies, including the departments of State and Homeland Security.
U.S. officials insist that the timing was coincidental and that the consulate decision was based solely on how best to keep the embassy in Moscow functioning with sufficient staff.
“We took the decision we took because it’s part of . . . broader problems in a bilateral diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia, which have extended to a so-called visa impasse,” John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said in an interview this week with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “We can’t get visas for U.S. personnel to come to work at our consulates in Yekaterinburg [and] Vladivostok, or the embassy in Moscow.”
“And without those personnel who are able to perform essential functions for health and safety risks, the risk is increasing that there could be a fire or other safety issues,” he added.
The other U.S. official said the consulate closures are not meant to send Moscow a message on any foreign policy issue other than the visas. “It’s not about Russian behavior, whether in cyberspace or elections or aggression abroad,” the official said.
But the decision effectively is a recognition that the U.S. relationship with Russia is unlikely to improve anytime soon, even after President-elect Joe Biden assumes office.
“We are going from bad to worse,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview with the Interfax news agency on Wednesday. “This was very typical for the past four years, and so far there is no feeling that this trend has exhausted itself.”
Ryabkov said he doubted tensions would ease in a Biden administration, which he described as stocked with foreign policy experts who harbor antipathy to Russia.
“It would be strange to expect good things from people, many of whom made their careers on Russophobia and throwing mud at my country,” he said.
The visa deadlock leaves the embassy in Moscow as the only U.S. diplomatic outpost in Russia, a vast country that encompasses 11 time zones. That complicates matters for Russians seeking visas to visit the United States, though they have dwindled with the pandemic. Before the coronavirus stopped most international travel, the wait for a U.S. visa in Moscow was almost a year, compared with a few months in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg.
It also blocks most remaining opportunities for U.S. diplomats to connect with ordinary Russians and local government officials. Those contacts already were curtailed by the Russians, who had ordered the closure of American “corners” established in Russian libraries, banished U.S. exchanged programs as undesirable and prohibited U.S. diplomats from speaking at universities.
The Russians have rejected U.S. requests to move to new buildings over the past year.
Under caps established under the retaliatory punishments, Russia and the United States are both allowed to staff their embassies and consulates with 455 people, including local hires. In reality, the Russians have almost 430 people in their U.S. missions, while the United States is down to about 320.
Visas are occasionally granted when diplomats are rotated out, though the Russians have imposed limitations, like insisting a woman can only be replaced by another woman, and a man with a man.
Some former U.S. envoys to Moscow consider the closures counterproductive.
“I cannot understand how this is anything but against the interests of the United States,” said James Collins, who as U.S. ambassador to Moscow oversaw the opening of the consulate in Vladivostok in 1992.
“It was in the American interest to get to know and establish relations with the Russian government beyond the Kremlin. It’s just as important today as it ever was,” he said.
Mike McFaul, a U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, said his conversations with students and business leaders in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg gave him valuable insights into popular sentiment.
“This is a self-inflicted wound,” he said of the consulate closures. “Russia is not kicking us out. We are unilaterally deciding we don’t want be there. It’s a giant mistake. I hope Biden reverses it.”
State Department officials say they have reached out to former ambassadors, explaining that conditions in recent years have made interactions with Russian citizens virtually impossible. About eight diplomats already have been transferred from Vladivostok to Moscow, but a handful remain in Yekaterinburg.
They have told the Russians that the United States will not order the closure of Russian consulates in Houston and New York, at least not for now. They would like their action will spur negotiations that reverse the impasse.
“I hope this is the start of a path forward and the Russians will think about it, and we’ll be able to get to a more stable footing for the bilateral situation,” the U.S. official said. “But that’s going to require visas for us to get our mission-essential personnel on the ground.”