In an escalating tit-for-tat, the United States forced Russia on Thursday to shutter its consulate in San Francisco and scale back its diplomatic presence in Washington and New York, as relations between the two former Cold War foes continued to unravel.
The Trump administration said the move constituted its response to the Kremlin’s “unwarranted and detrimental” decision to force the U.S. to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia. Under the order, Russia must close its San Francisco consulate by Saturday, along with Russia’s “chancery annex” in Washington and a “consular annex” in New York.
“The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. Still, she said the U.S. hoped both countries could now move toward “improved relations between our two countries and increased cooperation on areas of mutual concern.”
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Earlier this month, the Kremlin retaliated for stepped-up U.S. sanctions on Russia by announcing the U.S. would have to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755 people. During meetings in the Philippines shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left open the possibility the U.S., in turn, would retaliate for that move, and promised Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a formal response by Sept. 1.
The U.S. has said as a result, it will stop issuing visas at its consulates in Russia in cities other than Moscow. A senior U.S. official said Thursday that the U.S. reduction of diplomatic staff is complete.
There was no immediate reaction from the Russian government. But given the back-and-forth nature of the escalating tensions over the past year, it was likely the Kremlin would feel compelled to respond by taking further action against the U.S.
Nevertheless, the United States argued that the score has been evened, urging Russia not to retaliate for the retaliation. U.S. officials pointed out that Russia, when it ordered the cut in U.S. diplomats, had argued it was merely bringing the size of the two countries’ diplomatic presences into “parity.”
“The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation’s desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides,” Nauert said.
The newly arrived Russian ambassador to the United States has invoked Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in saying Moscow will carefully consider its response to the order to close its consulate in San Francisco and scale back operations in Washington and New York.
Anatoly Antonov flew into Washington on Thursday, hours after the State Department’s announcement of the closure.
Russian news agencies quoted him as saying: “We have to act calmly and professionally. Speaking like Lenin, we don’t need hysterical impulses,” citing a Lenin maxim.
Not much activity was detected outside the consulate building at 2790 Green Street in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood Thursday afternoon. A white van bearing the consulate logo could be seen parked outside. Several people, including aged relatives of people living in Russia, had shown up to get their passports renewed, and were surprised to hear the news.
Women with suitcases could also be seen coming out of the building, but nobody offered any comment. News crews with cameras were parked outside the building.
Daniel, a dual Russian citizen who was visiting the consulate Thursday, told NBC Bay Area he was blindsighted. "A lot of people feel blindsighted," he said.
Back in December, then President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S., including four employees and their families from the Russian consulate.
The four Russian consulate employees in San Francisco — including a chef accused of being a spy by the U.S. government — were ordered to leave the United States within 72 hours.
At that time, the Consul General called Obama's accusations against their staff "bizarre and ridiculous."
Full statement from the U.S. State Department:
"The United States has fully implemented the decision by the Government of the Russian Federation to reduce the size of our mission in Russia. We believe this action was unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.
In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring 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 will need to be accomplished by September 2.
With this action both countries will remain with three consulates each. While there will continue to be a disparity in the number of diplomatic and consular annexes, we have chosen to allow the Russian Government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship.
The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation’s desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides and move forward to achieve the stated goal of both of our presidents: improved relations between our two countries and increased cooperation on areas of mutual concern. The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted."
Riya Bhattacharjee and Sam Brock contributed to this report.