By Vladimir Isachenkov / Associated Press
MOSCOW — Amid a major diplomatic retaliation unseen since the Cold War era, Russia urged the United States on Monday to show the “political will” to repair ties.
President Vladimir Putin’s move to cut hundreds of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia underlines his readiness to raise the ante in the face of new sanctions approved by the U.S. Congress. The Russian leader warned that he has more tricks up his sleeve to hurt the U.S., but he voiced hope that he wouldn’t need to use them.
Vice President Mike Pence, visiting neighboring Estonia, said he hoped for “better days and better relations with Russia.”
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it will take time for the U.S. to recover from what he called “political schizophrenia,” but he added that Russia wants constructive cooperation with Washington.
“We are interested in a steady development of our ties and are sorry to note that we are still far from that,” he said.
Peskov’s statement followed televised comments Sunday by Putin, who said the U.S. would have to cut 755 of its embassy and consular staff in Russia, a massive reduction he described as a response to new U.S. sanctions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry first announced the cuts Friday, when it said that the U.S. should reduce its presence to 455 employees, the number that Russia has in the United States. It also declared the closure of a U.S. recreational retreat on the outskirts of Moscow and warehouse facilities.
Moscow’s action is the long-expected tit-for-tat response to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s move to expel 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two Russian recreational retreats in the U.S. following allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Putin had refrained from retaliating until now in the hope that President Donald Trump would follow on his campaign promises to improve ties with Moscow and roll back the steps taken by Obama.
The Russian leader hailed his first meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany earlier in July, saying that the talks offered a model for rebuilding relations.
But the congressional and FBI investigations into links between Trump’s campaign and Russia have weighed heavily on the White House, derailing Moscow’s hopes for an improvement in ties that worsened over the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and other disputes.
The overwhelming endorsement of a new package of stiff financial sanctions that passed Congress with veto-proof numbers last week dealt a new blow to Moscow’s aspirations. The White House said Trump will sign the package, and Putin decided to fire back without waiting for that to happen.
“We had hoped for quite a long time that the situation will somehow change, but apparently if it changes, it won’t be soon,” Putin said in remarks broadcast by state television late Sunday. “I thought it was the time for us to show that we’re not going to leave anything without an answer.”
The diplomatic personnel reductions are the harshest such move since 1986, when Moscow and Washington expelled dozens of diplomats.
The U.S. State Department called Putin’s move “a regrettable and uncalled-for act.”
Pence said in the Estonian capital of Tallinn that the U.S. wants to improve bilateral relations with Russia “despite the recent diplomatic action by Moscow.”
“We hope for better days and better relations with Russia,” Pence said.
Putin described the cuts in the U.S. Embassy and consular personnel as “painful.” Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said it would be up to the U.S. to determine who should leave.
The State Department declined to give an exact number of its diplomats or other U.S. officials in Russia, but the figure is believed to be about 400, some of whom have family members accompanying them on diplomatic passports.
Most of the more than 1,000 employees at the various U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia, including the embassy in Moscow and consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg, are local employees.
Putin said Russia has other levers to hurt the U.S., but added that he currently sees no need for further action.
“A moment may come when we could look at other options of retaliation, but I hope that it won’t come to that,” he said.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst who has consulted for the Kremlin in the past, said the congressional sanctions marked a “point of no return.”
He described the personnel cuts as a “moderate” response, a sort of an eleventh-hour warning to the U.S. from the Russian president.
“Putin had to do something, and from his point of view, that was the minimal possible response,” he said. “Putin is offering to stop, to make a pause.”
He predicted that if the escalation continues, “the Kremlin will go for an indirect strategy … dealing blows in other areas of the globe where the U.S. has interests.”
While the congressional move and the potential Russian response will foment global instability, the new U.S. sanctions will also further fuel anti-Americanism in Russia and help Putin mobilize his support base ahead of the March 2018 vote in which he is widely expected set to seek another term, Pavlovsky said.
“The Kremlin has received additional arguments for its game,” he said. “If Putin wanted to, he could build whole his election campaign solely on American sanctions.”