Diplomatic war: From Obama’s expulsion of Russian embassy staff to Trump’s closure of SF consulate
A series of diplomatic ‘tit-for-tat’ steps since Barack Obama’s expulsion of Russian staff last year has severely strained relations between Russia and US. In its latest move, citing a “spirit of parity,” Washington gave Moscow 2 days to shut down its San Francisco consulate.
December 29, 2016: Obama expels Russian diplomats, confiscates diplomatic property
Just days before the New Year celebrations, then-US President Barack Obama declared 35 Russian diplomats in the US “persona non grata” and gave them 72 hours to leave the country. The decision affected 96 people – the officials and their families, according to the Russian foreign ministry.
Obama described those expelled as "intelligence operatives," having alleged that the Russian embassy staff acted in a "manner inconsistent with their diplomatic status." Washington also closed two Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland. Those were vacation retreats, which the US claimed Moscow used for intelligence-related purposes.
The Kremlin resisted retaliatory measures suggested by its foreign ministry so as not to ruin the holidays for American diplomats. "We reserve the right to retaliate, but we will not sink to the level of this irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy. We will take further moves on restoring Russian-American relations based on the policies that the administration of President-elect Donald Trump adopts," Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the time.
To justify the expulsions, the Obama administration blamed Russia for allegedly interfering in the US presidential election which saw Republican candidate Donald Trump become president. No evidence of Moscow's interference or hacking has ever been made public by the US intelligence community.
Moscow denied accusations of Russia aiding Trump and said it’s "reminiscent of a witch hunt," with Putin noting that the US is not "a banana republic" for others to interfere with its people's choice and determine its political course.
July 25, 2017: Congress approves unilateral anti-Russia sanctions bill
Despite the new US president's apparent intentions to build better relations with Moscow, and after months of contacts through various diplomatic channels that led to reassurances, Trump signed legislation that imposed new sanctions against Russia at the beginning of August.
Passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, the new legislation partially stripped Trump of his presidential authority to formulate a foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia, by limiting his ability to ease sanctions without the approval from Congress.
Trump signed the 'Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act' but noted it was "seriously flawed" and had "clearly unconstitutional provisions" that encroach on the executive branch's authority to negotiate foreign policy.
Having discussed Washington’s sanctions policy with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the US law on sanctions against Russia “has become another link in the chain of unfriendly steps and dangerous for international stability, striking a powerful blow to the prospects for bilateral cooperation."
July 28, 2017: Moscow tells US to cut embassy staff down to size
Following the legislation’s approval by the US Congress, the Kremlin hit back, targeting the American diplomatic missions in Russia.
Moscow ordered the US State Department to limit the number of its personnel in Russia to 455, bringing it in line with the number of Russian diplomats in the US. President Putin said 755 American staff would have to leave by September 1.
Moscow also took back property used by American mission staff in the Russian capital, barring embassy workers from the retreat in the renowned Serebryany Bor park and forest area as well as storage facilities in the south of Moscow.
August 21, 2017: US cuts back visa operations in Russia
In response, the US embassy in Russia announced it was suspending all "non-immigrant visa operations" in Russia as of August 23. Visa operations would resume in September, but only at the main embassy building in Moscow. Russians would no longer be able to apply for visas at US consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok.
UPDATE: Russia will not act against US citizens as retaliatory step to US visa decision – Lavrov https://t.co/r4PfweDaUd— RT (@RT_com) August 21, 2017
Lavrov said the visa decision had been made to worsen Russian citizens' attitude toward their authorities, with his ministry adding the move had "an obvious political connotation."
Russians will have to wait for 85 days for an appointment at the US embassy in Moscow if they want to apply for standard tourist visas, according to the State Department.
The appointment waiting time is 53 days for other non-immigrant visas, such as business ones. Before the announcement, the time limits were reportedly much shorter, even during high season.
August 31, 2017: US orders closure of Russian consulate
Though the decision to cut back consular operations in Russia was made by the State Department and not Moscow, the Trump administration cited “the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians” to order the closure of Russia’s consulate in San Francisco, California and two diplomatic annexes in Washington, DC and New York City, on August 31.
Russia was given 2 days’ notice to implement the decision.
“The US is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement announcing the move. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed to reporters that Trump himself made the decision.
Lavrov “expressed regret over the escalation of tensions,” noting they were not initiated by Russia. He told Tillerson that Moscow would "closely study" the new US measures and would inform Washington of its reaction in due course.