The United States can include its local employees among the 755 diplomatic staff it must cut in Russia, a Kremlin spokesman said overnight, tempering the impact of an ultimatum issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The clarification from the Kremlin means that there will not necessarily be a mass expulsion of US diplomats as part of Moscow’s retaliation for new sanctions to be imposed on Russia.
The vast majority of the US’s roughly 1200 embassy and consulate staff in Russia are Russian citizens. Reducing their numbers will affect embassy and consular operations, but that step does not carry the same diplomatic impact as expelling US diplomats from the country.
Still, slashing the US embassy and consular staff by about 60% amounts to the most dramatic diplomatic demarche between the two countries since the Cold War.
Commenting on which diplomatic staff would have to go, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call: “That’s the choice of the United States.
“(It’s) diplomats and technical employees. That is, we’re not talking purely about diplomats obviously, there isn’t that number of diplomats but about people with non-diplomatic status, and people hired locally, and Russian citizens who work there,” he said.
As of 2013, the US mission in Russia, including the Moscow embassy and consulates in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, employed 1279 staff, according to a State Department Inspector-General’s report that year. That included 934 “locally employed” staff and 301 US “direct-hire” staff.
Forcing the United States to scale back its diplomatic presence will reinforce Putin’s reputation at home as a resolute defender of Russia’s interests. That will help burnish his image before next year’s presidential election, when he is expected to seek another term.
But the consequences of the Russian retaliation are not so stark that it would permanently alienate US President Donald Trump, according to Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think tank.
By announcing his counter-measures before Trump signed the sanctions legislation into law, “Putin is sending a message that he is punishing Congress’s America, and not Trump’s America,” Baunov wrote in a Facebook post. “(Putin) has taken Trump out of the direct line of fire and spared his ego.”
The Russian measures were announced after the US House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelmingly approved new sanctions on Russia. The White House said on Friday that Trump would sign the sanctions bill.
The new US sanctions were partly a response to conclusions by US intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election to help Trump win it, and to punish Russia further for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Moscow’s response included word that it would seize two US diplomatic properties a warehouse in southern Moscow and a complex on the outskirts of the city that embassy staff use for weekend recreation.