US planning to close last consulates in Russia

The closures would leave the embassy in Moscow as the US' last diplomatic mission in Russia. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Donald Trump's outgoing administration is planning to close the two remaining US consulates in Russia, media reports said Friday (Dec 18), as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office amid high tensions with Moscow.

The US will close its consulate in the far eastern city of Vladivostok and suspend operations at its post in Yekaterinburg, a department spokesperson told AFP.

The decision followed consultation with Ambassador John Sullivan and was part of "efforts to ensure the safe and secure operation of the US diplomatic mission in the Russian Federation," the spokesperson said.

CNN reported that a State Department letter to Congress this month said the move was a response to "ongoing staffing challenges for the US Mission in Russia in the wake of the 2017 Russian-imposed personnel cap on the US Mission."

Ten diplomats assigned to the consulates will reportedly be relocated to the US embassy in Moscow, while 33 local staff will lose their jobs.

The State Department did not confirm the numbers involved but said the "resulting realignment of personnel at US Embassy Moscow will allow us to advance our foreign policy interests in Russia in the most effective and safe manner possible.

"No action related to the Russian consulates in the United States is planned," the spokesperson added.

The closures would leave the embassy in Moscow as the United States' last diplomatic mission in Russia.

In March 2018 Moscow ordered the closure of the US consulate in St Petersburg amid a diplomatic spat sparked by the poisoning of Mr Sergei Skripal on UK soil.

It was unclear whether the closures would happen before Jan 20, when Mr Biden takes office.

On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Russia was "pretty clearly" behind a devastating cyber attack on several US government agencies that security experts say could allow attackers unfettered access to critical IT systems and electric power grids.

Mr Yohannes Abraham, executive director for the Biden transition team, said the hack was of "great concern" and that under the new administration cyber-attacks would meet a response inflicting "substantial cost."

Russia has denied any involvement in the cyber attacks.

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