MOSCOW — The U.S. Embassy in Moscow announced Monday that it would temporarily stop issuing all nonimmigrant visas in Russia and severely curtail visa operations as it slashes its staff to comply with the latest salvo in Washington’s diplomatic standoff with Moscow.
The decision comes after Russia demanded that the U.S. mission in the country reduce its staff from more than 1,200 employees to 455, the same size as the Russian diplomatic mission in the United States. The American Embassy’s announcement will likely mean delays for the hundreds of thousands of Russians who apply for nonimmigrant visas to the United States each year.
“Russia’s decision to reduce the United States’ diplomatic presence here calls into question Russia’s seriousness about pursuing better relations,” U.S. Mission to Russia, the collective name for American diplomatic and government staff in Russia, said in a statement issued on the embassy’s website. “We will maintain sufficient staff to carry out essential elements of our mission.”
The visa freeze, which also sparked anxiety that Russia could retaliate, is the latest escalation between Moscow and Washington going back to the alleged Russian hacking campaign during the 2016 presidential election.
Senior Russian lawmakers in the Duma and the Federation Council on Monday suggested a “mirror” response that could affect Americans seeking Russian visas. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he believed that by slowing the visa process the United States may be trying to “provoke discontent of Russian citizens against the actions of the Russian government,” but Lavrov also appeared to rule out a similar response by the Russian government.
“As for our countermeasures, as I've said, we should take a closer look at the decisions that the Americans have announced today,” Lavrov said at a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Moscow. “We'll see. I can only say one thing: We won't take it out on American citizens.”
Officially, Moscow’s demand that the U.S. Mission to Russia cut its staff was in retaliation for the Obama administration’s decision to expel dozens of Russian diplomats in December. But the decision came shortly after the House and Senate approved the latest round of broad, anti-Russian sanctions, further cooling relations despite the apparent affection between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
With a Sept. 1 deadline to cut more than 750 staff positions looming, the embassy announced on Monday that it would suspend all nonimmigrant visa applications and interviews until then, and that afterward it would suspend U.S. visa interviews at the American consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok — effectively forcing Russians across the vast country to travel to Moscow for a U.S. visa.
The U.S. Embassy issued 136,665 nonimmigrant visas in Moscow in 2016 according to official figures released by the State Department. By comparison, the U.S. consulate in Vladivostok, a city in the far east of Russia, issued 7,092 nonimmigrant visas. In total, the United States granted close to 190,000 visas in its embassies and consulates in Russia in 2016. By comparison, the Russian government granted under 95,000 nonimmigrant visas, the majority of them for tourists.