The Trump administration has ordered three Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States closed following the expulsion of American diplomats from Russia, the State Department said Thursday.
Last month, Russia demanded that the U.S. diplomatic presence there be reduced by hundreds of people. In retaliation, the State Department has ordered the Russian government to close its consulate general in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C., and a consular annex in New York City. These closures must be complete by Saturday.
The diplomatic reprisals underscore the continued deterioration of relations between the nuclear-armed nations, with more acts of payback likely to come. And they appear to place President Trump’s hopes for closer ties with Russia further out of reach.
The Trump administration has struggled at times to send a consistent message to the Kremlin. Some White House aides appeared to support Russia’s desire to have sanctions lifted early in the administration, but Trump ended up signing legislation in July slapping new punitive sanctions on Russia over election meddling. The State Department expressed disappointment when Russia expelled U.S. diplomats, but Trump made light of the situation, thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin “because we’re trying to cut down on payroll.”
On Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted the White House wants to “halt the downward spiral” between the countries.
“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,” Sanders said.
Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s newly named ambassador to Washington, cautioned against any “outbursts” on either side.
“Now we need to sort this out calmly, very calmly, and act in a professional manner,” Antonov said, according to the state-run Tass news agency. “My comrades and I will fulfill our work in a professional manner.”
Experts said it was likely that Russia would respond to the latest U.S. action, potentially by shuttering specific parts of the U.S. diplomatic mission, such as one of its consulates or other annexes.
“Then it will be up to the United States to react or not to react, but I hope that after this we will finally put this full stop in this cycle of action and counteraction and at least try to manage our relationship,” said Dmitry Suslov, a program director for the Valdai International Discussion Club in Moscow.
When Russia expelled U.S. diplomats this summer, it said it was retaliating for new U.S. sanctions and the seizure of two Russian compounds in the United States. The Kremlin said its response sought “parity” in the number of diplomats from each country working in the other, but it was read as a clear sign that Putin had written off chances of a rapprochement under Trump.
“The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation’s desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that relations are at their worst point since the Cold War and that national security demands that the United States try to improve them, but the Trump administration has shown no real success.
Russia’s role in the 2016 election also hangs over the latest back-and-forth. The United States claims that Russia meddled in the election with the goal of harming Democrat Hillary Clinton and helping Trump, a Republican businessman who had openly admired Putin and said he hoped for improved ties.
Russia denies interference and Trump denies any collusion. A special counsel and congressional panels are investigating, complicating the political climate for any U.S. outreach.
Putin hoped that Trump’s arrival in the White House would offer a fresh start — in particular a reversal of economic sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Additional sanctions and the expulsion of some Russian diplomats came in response to a U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia had attempted to influence the November election.
In what was seen as a welcoming gesture to Trump, Putin held off for months on any retaliation for those actions and the seizure of two Russian recreation compounds in the United States.
The Russian expulsions in July were his answer, and Thursday’s announcement by the United States is, in turn, a response to that action, which Nauert called “unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”
Tillerson told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a phone call Thursday that the United States had complied with the Russian demand by the Aug. 31 deadline, and informed him of the new U.S. demands, a State Department official said.
A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov “expressed his regret at the escalation of tensions in bilateral relations, which were not started by us.”
While the United States called its decision a reaction to Russia’s curtailing of U.S. diplomatic staff in the country, Russia has blamed the United States for setting off a cycle of sanctions and responses that seems likely to continue.
Lavrov told Tillerson that “Moscow would carefully study the new measures announced by the Americans, after which it would announce our reaction,” the Russian statement said.
Likewise, Nauert warned that the United States could also “take further action as necessary and as warranted.”
Tillerson and Lavrov agreed to meet in September, probably on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly session in New York, a State Department official said.
It’s not clear whether Trump and Putin will also meet at the U.N. session. The two leaders have met on one occasion, also on the sidelines of an international gathering.
Russia retains three other consulates as well as smaller diplomatic facilities in the United States. Russia has more facilities in the United States than the United States has in Russia. The State Department said it is not demanding absolute parity as a way to open the door for better relations.
The United States has not returned the diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York that it seized in December, despite Russian demands. The compounds have been the subject of lower-
level discussions between the two nations, and their return has been considered as a U.S. gesture of goodwill.
Russia owns two of the facilities that now must be closed and leases the third, the State Department official said. Russia will retain ownership but cannot use the facilities for diplomatic purposes. The facilities in Washington and New York house trade missions, while the larger San Francisco office handles visas and broader diplomatic work.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the diplomatic order, said no Russians will be expelled as a result of the new order. It was not clear how many Russian personnel are affected.
Each country accuses the other of using its diplomatic facilities to mask espionage. U.S. officials said the two recreational facilities seized in December had been misused, and the San Francisco site is suspected in economic espionage.
“Shutting down the San Francisco facility will hamper Moscow’s ability to target America’s tech industry using intelligence officers posing as diplomats,” said Edward Price, a former CIA analyst and a National Security Council spokesman in the Obama administration. “Closing the other facilities will force Russia to make difficult choices when it comes to deciding whether to prioritize its diplomatic mission or its covert intelligence-gathering activities.”
Andrew Roth in Moscow and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.