By Anne Gearan and Andrew Roth,
The Russian government announced Friday that it would seize U.S. diplomatic properties and kick out a large number of U.S. diplomats, effectively ending hopes for the fresh start with Moscow that President Trump came into office promising to seek.
The action, in response to a sanctions bill passed by Congress, signaled a loss of patience by Russian President Vladimir Putin with the Trump administration’s ability to change the bilateral relationship, as the legislation handcuffs Trump’s power to lift the punitive measures taken by the United States in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Now Trump has a difficult decision to make.
He can veto the law as a signal to Moscow of his continuing interest in rapprochement, while knowing Congress will easily override his action. He can sign the bill, acknowledging that his goal of better relations with Moscow is on ice. Or he could do nothing and simply let the law take effect.
The Russian expulsion order could affect scores or even hundreds of diplomats and other embassy staff — and officials in Moscow had recently indicated that the measure was imminent.
Former president Barack Obama expelled Russian diplomats and ordered the seizure of Russian properties in the United States in the closing weeks of his tenure, in response to the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and help Trump get elected.
Putin initially declined to respond with tit-for-tat expulsions of his own, a gesture to the president-elect and his pledge as a candidate to try to repair relations with the Kremlin.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday that Moscow had no choice but to respond now, according to a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Lavrov cited “a number of hostile steps” taken by the United States but also told Tillerson that Moscow was “ready to normalize the bilateral relations with the U.S. and cooperate on important international issues,” the Foreign Ministry said.
“We have expressed our strong disappointment and protest,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. The U.S. protests came during Tillerson’s call with Lavrov and a meeting U.S. Ambassador John Tefft held in Moscow with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
The department did not provide an estimate of how many U.S. personnel would have to depart by the Sept. 1 deadline, but Russia’s order to reduce the number of U.S. diplomatic staff to 455 would appear to affect as many as a few hundred people.
The Senate voted 98 to 2 for legislation that slaps new penalties on Russia and limits Trump’s ability to lift sanctions already in place. The measure had previously passed the House.
Trump’s aides have given mixed signals about whether the president will sign or veto the Russia legislation, which is packaged with additional sanctions on Iran and North Korea that he supports. Trump advisers have said the legislation imposes unacceptable limits on presidential prerogatives. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on what Trump might do.
“This does hem in Trump’s political moves,” said Jane Harman, a former California Democratic congresswoman who is now president of the Wilson Center.
Russia has promised additional retaliatory measures against the new sanctions once they become law, possibly targeting U.S. commercial or trade interests.
“This is a landmark moment,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a journalist for the newspaper Kommersant who regularly travels with Putin and has interviewed him extensively over the past 17 years. “His patience has seriously run out, and everything that he’s been putting off in this conflict, he’s now going to do.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok should reduce the number of their “diplomatic and technical employees” to 455, in apparent parity with the number of Russian diplomatic staff in the United States.
The Foreign Ministry also said it would seize, effective Aug. 1, a Moscow warehouse and dacha, or vacation house, used by the U.S. Embassy. The dacha, located in a posh suburb along the Moscow River, was often used by families of embassy workers for vacations or parties.
“The passing of the new bill on sanctions clearly showed that relations with Russia have become a hostage of the internal political struggle in the U.S.,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement laying out the measures. Putin and other officials have denied that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and dismissed the scandal as the creation of Russophobes in Washington.
A State Department official, in response to the expulsions, said, “We have received the Russian government notification” and noted that U.S. Ambassador John F. Tefft had expressed his “strong disappointment and protest.”
James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Putin’s grace period to test the possibility of better relations with the United States under Trump is over.
“This is certainly a negative development for any hope for near-term improvement in official relations,” he said. “They see the action by Congress in passing this bill on sanctions and limiting the president’s ability to act as a signal the Obama administration approach is not changed, and President Trump is not going to be able to change it.”
Russia also said the new U.S. sanctions could harm cooperation in the fights against terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, illegal drug trafficking, illegal migration and cybercrime.
Among the areas that could be affected are a United Nations vote on new North Korea sanctions and cooperation in Syria.
“The U.S. needs our support on some issues at the U.N. Security Council; they are trying to mobilize the international community to toughen sanctions against North Korea,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian Federation Council information policy commission, said in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax.
In Syria, the administration is depending on Russia to restrain its allies — the government of President Bashar al-Assad and Iran — from interfering in the campaign against the Islamic State. Early this month, Tillerson hailed a new agreement between Moscow and Washington on a cease-fire in one corner of Syria’s civil war as “our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together” on what he described as the shared goal of Syrian stability.
U.S. officials have described cooperation on Syria as steadily improving, and Lavrov, in the Foreign Ministry statement, said Russia was “still willing to . . . cooperate on the most important items of the international agenda.”
The statement said that Moscow “agreed to continue contacts on all aspects of Russian-American relations.”
Tillerson traveled to Moscow this year on what he called an outreach mission. The United States, he said at the time, cannot afford to have such bad blood with its largest potential nuclear adversary.
Trump and Putin met for the first time on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit this month in Hamburg and appeared to strike up a good personal rapport.
But ultimately, Putin wanted results from the relationship — in particular, sanctions relief.
A handful of spies in the United States and Russia have been expelled in recent years, including Ryan Fogle, a CIA officer who was paraded on Russian television wearing a shaggy blond wig in 2013. But the last sizable round of diplomatic expulsions was in 2001, when the U.S. government kicked out 51 Russian diplomats over the Robert Hanssen spy case.
Hanssen, an FBI agent caught trying to make a “dead drop” to a Russian handler in a park in Virginia, was accused of spying for Russia since 1986. Russia expelled 50 diplomats in retaliation. The United States under President Ronald Reagan ordered out 55 Soviet diplomats in 1986 in another case, after Russia expelled five U.S. diplomats.
But this time, the scale of the expulsions, if confirmed to be in the hundreds, appears unprecedented.
“The numbers game is important,” said Andrew Weiss, a vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who previously served on the State Department’s policy planning staff. “The Russians tend to be fastidious about this janitor for that janitor, this second secretary for that second secretary. Extremely into reciprocity.”
A change in that pattern, he said, could indicate a serious deterioration in relations.
Roth reported from Moscow.
Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report