The United States can include its local employees among the 755 diplomatic staff it must cut in Russia, a Kremlin spokesman said on Monday, tempering the impact of an ultimatum issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The clarification from the Kremlin means that there will not necessarily be a mass expulsion of US diplomats as part of Moscow’s retaliation for new sanctions that are to be imposed on Russia by the United States.
The vast majority of the United States’ roughly 1,200 embassy and consulate staff in Russia are Russian citizens. Reducing their numbers will affect embassy and consular operations, but that step does not carry the same diplomatic impact as expelling US diplomats from the country.
Still, slashing the US embassy and consular staff by about 60 percent amounts to the most dramatic diplomatic demarche between the two countries since the Cold War.
Commenting on which diplomatic staff would have to go, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call: “That’s the choice of the United States.”
“(It’s) diplomats and technical employees. That is, we’re not talking purely about diplomats – obviously, there isn’t that number of diplomats – but about people with non-diplomatic status, and people hired locally, and Russian citizens who work there,” he said.
As of 2013, the US mission in Russia, including the Moscow embassy and consulates in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, employed 1,279 staff, according to a State Department Inspector General’s report that year. That included 934 “locally employed” staff and 301 US “direct-hire” staff.
Forcing the United States to scale back its diplomatic presence will reinforce Putin’s reputation at home as a resolute defender of Russia‘s interests. That will help burnish his image before next year’s presidential election, when he is expected to seek another term.
But the consequences of the Russian retaliation are not so stark that it would permanently alienate US President Donald Trump, according to Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, a think tank.
By announcing his counter-measures before Trump signed the sanctions legislation into law, “Putin is sending a message that he is punishing Congress’s America, and not Trump’s America,” Baunov wrote in a Facebook post. “(Putin) has taken Trump out of the direct line of fire and spared his ego.”
The Russian measures were announced after the US House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelmingly approved new sanctions on Russia. The White House said on Friday that Trump would sign the sanctions bill.
The new US sanctions were partly a response to conclusions by US intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election to help Trump win it, and to punish Russiafurther for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Moscow’s response included word that it would seize two US diplomatic properties – a warehouse in southern Moscow and a complex on the outskirts of the city that embassy staff use for weekend recreation.
In an interview broadcast on Russian state television on Sunday, Putin said he acted as there was no sign that relations between Russia and the United States were improving under Trump.
“We were waiting for quite a long time that maybe something would change for the better, were holding out hope that the situation would change somehow. But it appears that even if it changes someday it will not change soon,” Putin said.
Putin said Russia could take more measures against the United States, but not at the moment. “I am against it as of today,” he said in the interview with Vesti TV.
TOWN HALL MEETING
On Sunday, a US State Department official called Russia‘s action “a regrettable and uncalled-for act.”
“We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Embassy employees in Moscow were on Monday anxiously waiting to hear if they would keep their jobs.
An official at the US embassy, who declined to be identified because they were not authorised to talk to the media, said a full embassy town hall meeting was scheduled for Monday and more information was expected then.
For now though, the official said, there was no information on which departments would take the brunt of the cuts.
Local staff who are let go expect to be offered the same deal as when USAID shut down itsRussia operations in 2012, the official said.
Then, local employees who had worked for the embassy for 15 years or more were offered a green card and a government job in the United States, the official said, while others received 2-3 months’ salary as severance pay.
An embassy spokeswoman declined immediate comment.
At the warehouse used by the US Embassy – one of the properties it is being forced to quit – a Reuters journalist on Monday saw people in the uniform of embassy employees loading three trucks. Two of the trucks then drove out of the warehouse grounds.
One area likely to be hit by the staff cuts is the US operation that issues visas to Russian citizens seeking to travel to the United States, according to a former US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul.
“If these cuts are real, Russians should expect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to US,” McFaul wrote in a Twitter post on Sunday.