President Donald Trump has said nothing about his Russian counterpart’s decision to aggressively downsize U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia, part of a pointed response to new sanctions on Moscow.
In an announcement Sunday, President Vladimir Putin said that U.S. mission staffs across the country would need to reduce by 755 people — the largest reduction since the Russian Revolution in 1917. Around 1,200 people are employed at U.S. embassies and consulates around the country, but Putin says that number will now be capped at 455 by September 1.
“More than a thousand employees — diplomats and technical employees — have worked and are still working in Russia these days,” Putin said in an interview with Russian state media. “Some 755 of them will have to terminate their activity.”
Putin’s response comes after the United States slapped Russia with harsh sanctions last week. Passed by an overwhelming majority in Congress, the new sanctions bill punishes Russia for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It also reigns in Trump’s ability to do anything about the sanctions without congressional approval — a direct blow to the president, whose short tenure in office has been dogged by his connections to Russia. But with Trump expected to sign the bill, the Kremlin is retaliating.
Russia’s reaction isn’t entirely unprecedented. In 2016, former President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats over the election hacking, a precursor to sanctions. But the Kremlin’s large-scale expulsion is one of the largest in modern history — something that still hasn’t prompted Trump to comment.
While Putin’s initial announcement came Friday, with a follow-up regarding specifics on Sunday, his U.S. counterpart has remained conspicuously silent. Trump has tweeted about health care, North Korea, and the firing of his chief of staff, but his only mention of Russia came on Saturday, when the president once again asserted that he is the victim of a “witch hunt.”
In other words, Russia was against Trump in the 2016 Election – and why not, I want strong military & low oil prices. Witch Hunt! https://t.co/mMSxj4Su5z
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017
A number of commentators and regional experts have expressed concern over Trump’s silence.
“Could someone send me the statements of outrage from the [White House] or State [Department] about the Russian expulsion of our diplomats?” asked Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, on Twitter. “Haven’t seen them yet.”
Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and president of the Eurasia Group, also voiced discontent. “If it were any other country, Trump would at least tweet an angry response,” Bremmer wrote.
Could someone send me the statements of outrage from the WH or State about the Russian expulsion of our diplomats? Haven't seen yet.
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 31, 2017
Russia kicks out 755 US mission employees. If it were any other country, Trump would at least tweet an angry response.
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) July 31, 2017
McFaul later noted that a response was in fact issued by the State Department, albeit a brief one. “This is a regrettable and uncalled-for act,” a statement read. “We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it.” (That reaction followed a decidedly different comment on Saturday. “Vote in Congress for sanctions legislation represents will of Americans to see #Russia improve relations w/ the U.S.,” the State Department’s official handle tweeted, sparking confusion from followers.)
But while the United States is the clear target of Russia’s ire, several commentators have also noted that those most impacted will actually be Russian citizens. Like many non-Western countries, Russians face severe travel restrictions, often requiring considerable amounts of paperwork and documentation. Reduced staff in U.S. embassies and consulates mean Russians who need visas to visit the United States will face even longer waiting times.
Russians will also face job implications. Embassies employ a number of Russian citizens, many of whom are now likely to lose their jobs — part of a larger pattern for Putin, whose efforts to retaliate against the West often hurt Russians the most.
Most of those affected by Putin's measure will be Russian staff. Once again, Putin goes after America by punishing…Russians.
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) July 31, 2017
Russian citizens will be hit hardest by smaller US staff at the embassy. Wait time for a visa to travel to US will increase dramatically.
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 31, 2017
— Steven Pifer (@steven_pifer) July 31, 2017
According to a State Department Inspector General’s report from 2013, nearly 900 employees were “local hires,” another indicator that Russians will feel the brunt of the expulsions far more than U.S. citizens. But that reality doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact on Putin.
“This is a landmark moment,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a journalist who has covered Putin for nearly two decades. “His patience has seriously run out,” Kolesnikov told the Washington Post, “and everything that he’s been putting off in this conflict, he’s now going to do.”
That makes a shift from U.S.-Russia relations only a few months ago. Shortly after taking office, Trump worked to roll back sanctions on Russia, rather than push them forward. He has also consistently expressed admiration for Putin — the rapport between the two leaders arguably spurred Congress to ensure Trump would be hard-pressed to hinder sanctions on Russia going forward.
Now, that relationship is souring. But when asked if he would consider future retaliatory measures, Putin seemed unsure.
“I am against it as of today,” he said. But the Russian president asserted that warming relations aren’t likely any time soon.
“We waited for quite a long time that, perhaps, something will change for the better, we held out hope that the situation would somehow change,” Putin said of U.S-Russia relations. “But, judging by everything, if it changes, it will not be soon.”