US orders 3 Russian diplomatic facilities closed in tit-for-tat move

A Russian flag flying in Mosocw. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Trump administration has ordered Russia to close its consulate in San Francisco and two diplomatic annexes in New York and Washington, retaliating against Russia's order for the United States to reduce its embassy staff in Moscow by 755 people.

The Russian diplomatic facilities will have to be closed by Saturday (Sept 2).

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, of the tit-for-tat move in a phone call Thursday morning. The administration took pains to say the move was purely reciprocal, and was not designed to further escalate tensions between the United States and Russia.

But in a statement, the Russian foreign ministry said Lavrov "expressed regret at the escalation of tension in bilateral relations," and said the Russian government would study the move before deciding how to respond.

Tillerson and Lavrov are expected to meet during the United Nations General Assembly next month.

"In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians," the United States would require Russia to close the three offices by Saturday, the State Department's spokesman Heather Nauert said in a statement,

The State Department would not say how many employees will be affected by the closings, although it noted that the reduction would leave the United States and Russia with three consulates in each other's country.

"While there will continue to be a disparity in the number of diplomatic and consular annexes," the statement said, "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 Cold War-style response had been expected since earlier this month, when Russia ordered the US Embassy staff cuts after Congress imposed sanctions because of Moscow's meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

But the State Department's response seemed calculated to avoid deepening the rift with Russia. The administration is not expelling any Russian diplomatic personnel from the United States, nor did it touch the staff at Russia's main embassy in Washington.

The Trump administration's announcement of the action also bore little resemblance to Russia's move, which was announced by President Vladimir Putin himself in an interview with state-run Russian television. The White House delegated the response to Tillerson, and the explanation of the move was left to a mid-level State Department official.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.