Russia hits back after new US sanctions

General view of a warehouse used by US embassy in Dorozhnaya Street in Moscow, Russia, on July 28, 2017.
General view of a warehouse used by US embassy in Dorozhnaya Street in Moscow, Russia, on July 28, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

Russia has ordered the US Embassy to reduce its staff in Moscow by September and barred the use of two properties there as a new chill envelops Russia-US relations and even threatens to echo in Europe.

The moves came a day after the US Senate approved sanctions against Moscow, and made it mandatory for President Donald Trump to seek approval from Congress if he wants to lift them. The Bill, which included sanctions against North Korea and Iran, was passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Moscow ordered the US to reduce its diplomatic presence in Russia to 455 diplomats and staff, matching the number of Russian diplomats in the United States after then President Barack Obama expelled 35 in early January. It also barred the US Embassy from using a Moscow summer house and storage facility.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement: "The passage of the new law on sanctions shows with all obviousness that relations with Russia have become hostage to the domestic political battle within the US.

"The latest events show that in well-known circles in the United States, Russophobia and a course towards open confrontation with our country have taken hold."

Mr Trump has yet to sign off on the new sanctions, and it is not certain that he will.

The State Department has reportedly lobbied against the provision requiring Congressional approval to waive sanctions, as it would reduce room for diplomatic bargaining.

The European Union is also unhappy with the Bill because, among other things, it targets "any company that contributes to the development or operation of energy export pipelines in the Russian Federation or to Europe, or engages in oil ventures with Russian companies".

This would make companies involved in the ongoing Nord Stream 2 project which is to deliver natural gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, vulnerable to US sanctions. On Wednesday, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, in a statement, said: "The US Bill could have unintended unilateral effects that impact the EU's energy security interests."

"The commission concluded today that if our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days," he said, adding: "America first cannot mean that Europe's interests come last."

During his campaign, Mr Trump vowed to pursue better ties with Russia and professed admiration for its strongman President Vladimir Putin. But the idea seems all but doomed as Mr Trump remains dogged by allegations at home of Russian interference in the election, and possible collusion by key members of his campaign including his son and son-in-law.

Moscow had held off reciprocal action in January when Mr Obama, citing "significant malicious cyber-enabled activities", expelled the Russian diplomats and barred Russia from using two properties.

But on Thursday in Finland, Mr Putin said: "We are behaving in a very restrained and patient way, but at some moment we will need to respond... It's impossible to endlessly tolerate this kind of insolence towards our country."

Mr Putin, who has denied meddling in the US election, described the allegations in America as "hysteria". He said: "It's a great pity that Russian-US relations are being sacrificed to resolve questions of domestic politics."