Four Russian Consulate employees in San Francisco — including a chef accused of being a spy — are among the 35 Russian diplomats ordered to leave the United States within 72 hours by President Barack Obama, the Russian Consul General to San Francisco announced Friday.
Sergey Petrov didn't want to divulge too many details about the ouster at an impromptu news conference at the consulate on Green Street in Pacific Heights. But he did let reporters in on a "small secret" about one of the the employees told to go back home to the "motherland."
"One of the employees who will be leaving is the chef, who was characterized by the outgoing U.S. Administration as an intelligence operative,” Petrov said. He added somberly: “On New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, we will have to cook ourselves … We will not be able to treat our guests to authentic Russian food, his hors d'oeuvres.” Moments later, the Russian Consulate posted a photo of their New Year's spread for the party, which included deviled eggs and perogies.
Petrov would not name the chef, nor would the State Department. NBC News said the names of the diplomats are not being released, because they don't want Russia to do the same for American operatives. In their Facebook post, the Consul General called Obama's accusations against their staff "bizarre and ridiculous."
The meeting was a stark contrast to how reporters were greeted by the consulate on Thursday, the day U.S.-Russian foreign relations suffered a major blow after Obama issued sweeping sanctions against Russia in response to election hacking. During that interaction, a voice boomed from an intercom: "Leave this territory." No one would come out to speak to reporters flanking the sidewalk, hoping to learn more about this surprising and mysterious announcement from the White House. Petrov's PR shift was in line with the overall Russian strategy following Obama's serious tone.
The official Twitter feed for Russia on Friday tweeted out New Year's greetings to Obama, President-elect Donald Trump and the American people, inviting "all children of the U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas children's show at the Kremlin!"
A total of eleven people are leaving the Russian Consulate in San Francisco "within hours," which includes the four employees and their families, including three children, Petrov said.
"The three kids will not see Santa, or gifts under the Firtree (in Russia it happens on the New Year eve)," the Consul General said on its Facebook page. "They only have one day to finalize their financial affairs, terminate their apartment leases, pack their belongings, as well as to prepare for the long trip, first to Los Angeles by car and then by plane to Moscow — no tickets left for shorter and more comfortable itineraries."
"It's just not human," Petrov told reporters, adding he was hopeful the Trump administration would be able to retore relations between the two countries.
The consulate said the chef hailed from the historic city of Yaroslavl, and that his "mastery was enjoyed by hundreds of our guests at the consulate for three years." The chef will be leaving with his wife and two-year-old son.
Petrov acknowledged the loss of consul officers would prevent the consulate from being as efficient as they want to be. But he said the doors would remain open for "business as usual" for both American and Russian citizens.
“A limited number of people will not allow all the consular services to all the citizens in the manner we want to do it — but we will do our best to serve all the Russian people living here” as well as Americans applying for Russian visas, Petrov said.
An estimated 100,000 Russians live on the West Coast, Petrov said.
Petrov also made a plea to reporters to respect the privacy of the employees being expelled. “Many of them don’t even speak English, many speak limited English,” he said, explaining that it was one of the reasons for not responding to the media outside the consulate Thursday.
The surprise news conference was perhaps unprecedented, and even Petrov admitted that the consulate usually doesn't comment on things like sanctions. "Today we decided to make an exception as we're trying to change many things in our relations with the U.S," he said. "It's my president who inspired me to do that."
"Is this the first time the media has been inside the consulate?" one of the reporters asked Petrov.
"Maybe it's your first time here; we invite the media to all our events." Petrov replied, smiling. He then made a general invitation to the media to attend the consulate's New Year's Eve party.
"As we are nearing the New Year’s, I would invite you to have a glass of champagne," he told reporters. "How about that?"