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Putin says the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia needs to cut 755 employees. What do all these people do?

The Post's Andrew Roth explains a statement the Russian Foreign Ministry issued July 28 (Video: Andrew Roth, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

MOSCOW — When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Sunday that the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Russia would have to cut 755 diplomatic and technical staff, many people had the same first thought: We have 755 diplomats in Russia for Putin to expel? Doesn't that seem like a lot?

The answer is yes, that does seem like a lot. Because no, we don't have 755 diplomats in Russia.

So what is Putin talking about? Altogether, the U.S. government employs more than an estimated 1,200 people in Russia. The majority are hired by the State Department, charged with running the U.S. Embassy and consulates, processing visas and handling other diplomatic tasks. But it also includes employees of dozens of governmental agencies and departments, like the Defense Department, the Agriculture Department, NASA and even the Library of Congress. Collectively, this vast enterprise is often referred to as U.S. Mission Russia or just Mission Russia.

I write that Mission Russia employs an “estimated” 1,200 people because the U.S. Embassy and the State Department have not responded to our requests for data about how many people are employed in this endeavor.

Luckily, the blog Diplopundit had a helpful post Sunday, breaking down the numbers using earlier reports: “In 2013, US Mission Russia (embassy and consulates general) employed 1,279 staff. This included 301 U.S. direct-hire positions and 934 locally employed (LE) staff positions from 35 U.S. Government agencies.”

Those statistics came from a 2013 report put together by the State Department's Office of Inspector General, which inspects the “approximately 260 embassies, diplomatic posts, and international broadcasting installations throughout the world” to see whether resources are properly allocated to achieve U.S. policy goals.

The full 2013 report contains a wealth of information about who works for U.S. Mission Russia, including a breakdown of how many U.S. and foreign staff work for each government department and agency. I have included a few thoughts below. There is also a report from 2007 that we'll use for comparison. One note: The 2013 report gives nationality and department data for only 1,200 of Mission Russia's 1,279 employees.

The majority of U.S. Mission Russia employees are not Americans and won't be expelled: Of 1,200 people employed in 2013 in Mission Russia, 333 were U.S. citizens and 867 were designated “Foreign National Staff,” most of them probably Russian nationals. Using the 2013 numbers, if Mission Russia is forced to let go of 755 people, a majority of them would not be U.S. citizens and probably would not be expelled from the country.

Putin said he is seeking parity and wants Mission Russia to employ the same number of people as Russia does in the United States (455 people). But the sheer number of employees that Mission Russia will have to cut means that Putin's decision will probably be seen as an escalation, requiring a response from Washington.

This will hurt Russians: The single largest departmental employer in Mission Russia is the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services, or ICASS, employing 652 people in 2013 (that was a majority of the staff in Mission Russia). Of those 652 people, 603 were foreign nationals, probably Russians, considering the location.

What do they do? Mostly administrative services. The ICASS website has a helpful rundown: " … motor pool operations and vehicle maintenance, travel services, reproduction services, mail and messenger services, information management, reception and telephone system services, purchasing and contracting, human resources services, cashiering, vouchering, accounting, budget preparation, non-residential security guard services, and building operations.”

Drivers, IT workers, accountants, handymen, secretaries.

Putin's decision implies that many of them will lose their jobs as the State Department goes through a painful triage process before the Sept. 1 deadline.

As I noted in an earlier piece, the Kremlin often denies access to its own market, whether to supermarket consumers or adoptable children, to strike back at the West. So limiting access to its labor market for the U.S. Embassy is not a total surprise. In fact, in 1986, the Soviet Union banned its citizens from working for the U.S. Embassy, forcing embassy staff to moonlight as chauffeurs and mechanics. (There were questions about third-country staff, like an Italian chef: “I see the pizza is as good as before,” a Soviet official said ominously at a reception in 1986. “Not everything is yet clear.")

This will further hurt Russians: This will also probably force the U.S. Embassy and consulates to cut consular staff, including employees who process visa requests. The result of a further drawdown, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul predicted in a tweet, would be a slowdown in visa turnaround.

It can already take weeks, or months, just to get an interview date as part of the visa process.

Interestingly, U.S. Mission Russia used to be far larger. According to the 2007 report, it employed at least 1,779 people, including 1,251 foreign nationals. (“The Ambassador is determined to streamline a mission that has grown too large,” the report reads. Apparently, he was successful.) Hundreds of the additional foreign employees worked in Diplomatic and Consular Programs and in Consular Affairs, the departments that handle visas, among other tasks. The U.S. Agency for International Development, which employed 99 people in Russia in 2007, was expelled by the Russian government in 2013.

Many employees don't work for the State Department: U.S. Mission Russia represents 35 agencies, or at least it did in 2013.

While the State Department employed 1,043 of the 1,279 U.S. Mission Russia employees and will probably suffer most from the cuts, other departments would be expected to take a hit, too.

They include:

  • The Defense Department, which had 26 employees in Russia working for the Defense Intelligence Agency and 10 working for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which combats nuclear proliferation and other threats from weapons of mass destruction.
  • Trade representatives, including 17 employees from the Agriculture Department and 31 employees of the Commerce Department.
  • Representatives from U.S. law enforcement agencies (four FBI employees and six Drug Enforcement Administration employees).
  • NASA, which has 12 employees, probably including support staff for astronauts on the International Space Station or those hitching a ride on Russian Soyuz rockets.
  • Three employees were tasked to the Sochi Olympics and are probably gone.
  • The Library of Congress, which has two American and two foreign staffers, and the Transportation Department, which has one American and one foreign staffer.

It doesn't look as if many of these 1,200 employees are construction workers: The U.S. Embassy in Moscow is building a $280 million annex to “replace inadequate consular facilities,” according to the 2013 report. In background discussions with The Washington Post, some U.S. officials have suggested that the large number of Mission Russia employees may be contractors and other workers tied to that construction, and that the employment cut could be an attempt to scuttle the construction.

That doesn't appear to be the case. The State Department has two U.S. citizens and eight foreign nationals working for the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, probably linked to the annex's construction. But otherwise, the number of staffers at Mission Russia has remained stable for five years and has declined considerably since 2007 (from 1,779 in 2007 to 1,279 in 2013). More data would confirm this, but if U.S. Mission Russia employed about 1,200 people in 2013 before construction began and employs about 1,200 people now, it would not seem that many are tied to the embassy expansion.