What will be the ramifications of Putin's order to reduce US embassy staff?
When it comes to diplomatic expulsions, likes to pull a surprise.
When the outgoing Barack Obama administration 35 Russian diplomats in December, the Russian president was widely expected to make a symmetrical response, but surprised everyone by doing – apparently in the hope that relations would become rosier when Donald Trump took office.
Now, seven months later, , and Putin had another surprise up his sleeve: this time, the Russian move is so severe that if it goes ahead it is likely to paralyse the work of US diplomats in Russia.
Moscow’s response, announced by the foreign ministry on Friday morning and confirmed by Putin on Sunday night, was to demand that the Americans reduce their presence in – the Moscow embassy, as well as consulates in St Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Vladivostok – to a total of 455 people. The main victims of the huge cull demanded by the Russians are likely to be the embassy’s local Russian staff.
Standard diplomatic practice, when it comes to expulsions, is an eye for an eye: you kick out eight of our diplomats, and we’ll kick out eight of yours. Putin’s order, which gave a specific number allowed to remain, rather than a specific number of expulsions, caused some confusion.
A source in Moscow confirmed that the 455 figure was not only for US diplomats but for all staff employed at the US missions, “from the cleaners to the ambassador”, and said it would be up to the Americans to decide how they reorganised their staffing.
Putin said on Sunday evening that the Russian order meant that 755 employees would have to “cease their work”.
The US embassy has refused to comment on how many staff it has and what the breakdown is between local hires and diplomats, but a 2013 internal report into the Russia mission noted that the state department deployed 301 diplomats and 934 locally hired staff positions in Russia. Allowing for small changes over the past four years, this would fit roughly with Putin’s statement that 755 should be dismissed to leave a total of 455.
Theoretically, this could mean the Americans could merely release the majority of their local staff and would not need to send any diplomats home, but the embassy relies on a huge staff of caterers, drivers, gardeners and cleaners to keep it running. The only way to make the cuts without sending dozens of diplomats home would be to make career diplomats start pruning the hedges and answering the phones.
The closest historical parallel was a 1986 Soviet decree banning local staff from working for the US embassy in retaliation for the expulsion of 55 Soviet diplomats from the US. The the ambassador had to drive himself around Moscow, his wife did the catering and US marines worked at the embassy bar.
The US embassy in Moscow has made no comment at all on the Russian order, except to say ambassador John Tefft expressed his “strong disappointment and protest” when he was informed on Friday of the cuts by the foreign ministry, and that the embassy is liaising with Washington.
It is possible that some kind of negotiations are underway, as the reduction in staff does not come into effect until 1 September. Russia is desperate to gain back two diplomatic properties seized by the Americans in December, and to have new diplomats accredited for work in the US. If the US agrees to grant visas to more Russian diplomats, it is possible the Russian demands will be waived or softened.
The cuts will be a huge challenge for the Jon Huntsman, who – if he is confirmed by the Senate – is expected to arrive in the Russian capital at the end of the summer.
Russian counter-sanctions have a habit of hitting Russians themselves the hardest, with recent examples including banning the , and . There is even a popular Russian meme which suggests Russian officials will give the order to “bomb Voronezh” (a Russian city) in response to hostile attacks from the West.
Russians who work for the US missions are likely to be the biggest casualties. Their lives are already make extremely difficult. One former local employee reported men he presumed to be FSB agents arriving at his family home and tailing him across Moscow, asking him why he was working for the Americans and telling him he ought to become an informant if he was a patriot. Eventually, he left the job.
“Russian citizens will be hit hardest by smaller US staff at the embassy. Wait time for a visa to travel to US will increase dramatically,” former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul on Twitter.
Russian officials, who have denied all allegations of meddling in the US elections, say they had no choice but to respond harshly, as it becomes clear that whatever Donald Trump’s desires, warmer relations with the US are unlikely, as his administration remains mired in scandal.
The almost unanimous passing by both houses of Congress last week of proved to be the final straw. Putin last week Russia could not continue to tolerate such “insolence” from the Americans.
“After half a year of waiting and then harsh new American sanctions, a symmetrical response would have looked weak,” the pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov wrote on Facebook.
“After the new law in which Russia is basically called an enemy of the US, there’s no possibility for good relations. So why do we need such a big army of their diplomats here? So that they can spy and interfere in our elections? It’s better if they go home.”