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Russia orders out US diplomats in sanctions retaliation


REUTERS

Russia orders out US diplomats in sanctions retaliation

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MOSCOW – Russia on Friday ordered the United States to cut hundreds of diplomatic staff in retaliation for a new round of US sanctions, and said it was seizing two US diplomatic properties.

Moscow’s decision, which had echoes of the Cold War, was announced by the Foreign Ministry a day after the US Senate overwhelmingly approved new sanctions on Russia. The legislation was in part a response to conclusions by US intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election, and to further punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

The bill goes to President Donald Trump, who could give it final approval or veto it.

Russia had been threatening retaliation for weeks. Its response suggests it has set aside initial hopes of better ties with Washington under Trump, something the US leader, before he was elected, had said he wanted to achieve.

Relations were already languishing at a post-Cold War low because of the allegations that Russian cyber interference in the election was intended to boost Trump’s chances, something Moscow flatly denies. Trump has denied any collusion between his campaign and Russian officials.

The Russian Foreign Ministry complained of growing anti-Russian feeling in the United States, accusing “well-known circles” of seeking “open confrontation”.

President Vladimir Putin had warned on Thursday that Russia would have to retaliate against what he called boorish US behaviour. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Friday that the Senate vote was the last straw.

A top White House aide said on Thursday that Trump might veto the bill in order to push for a tougher deal, an idea that drew scepticism in Congress because his administration had spent weeks lobbying for a weaker bill. The bill is expected to garner enough support in both chambers to override any veto.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by telephone that Russia was ready to normalise relations with the United States and to cooperate on major global issues.

Lavrov and Tillerson “agreed to maintain contact on a range of bilateral issues”, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. 

The ministry said the United States had until September 1, to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 people, the number of Russian diplomats left in the United States after Washington expelled 35 Russians in December. 

It was not immediately clear how many US diplomats and other workers would be forced to leave either the country or their posts, but the Interfax news agency cited an informed source, as saying “hundreds” of people would be affected.

A diplomatic source told Reuters that it would be for the United States to decide which posts to cut, whether occupied by US or Russian nationals.

An official at the US Embassy, who declined to be named because they were not allowed to speak to the media, said the Embassy employed around 1 100 diplomatic and support staff in Russia, including Russian and US citizens.

Russian state television channel Rossiya 24 said over 700 staff would be affected but that was not confirmed by the foreign ministry or the US embassy. (Reuters)

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