State Department Orders Russia to Shutter San Francisco Consulate
Revenge is a dish best served diplomatically.
Add yet another verse to the ballad of crumbling U.S.-Russian relations.
On Thursday, the State Department said its ordered Russia to shutter three diplomatic sites in the United States in the “spirit of parity,” including the Russian consulate in San Francisco. It’s the latest round in the two countries’ tit-for-tat expulsions and property closures.
In July, Moscow ordered the United States to slash 755 of its own staff in Russia, in response to last December’s decision to expel 35 diplomats and seize two diplomatic compounds, which Russia maintains was a violation of U.S. and international law. Moscow’s announcement that the United States had to downsize diplomatically and close two U.S. compounds came as Congress leveled fresh sanctions against Russia over alleged meddling in the last U.S. presidential election.
The United States said Thursday it scaled back its staffing at Russia’s request, albeit begrudgingly. “We believe this action was unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our two countries,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
The State Department instructed Russia to close down its consulate in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, and a consular annex in New York, all by Sept. 2. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a call early on Thursday, a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing call.
Russia will still own the San Francisco consulate and two annex buildings — both housing trade staff — but may no longer use them for diplomatic purposes. The United States is not expelling the diplomats and consulate workers who staffed them, a senior administration official confirmed. They can be reassigned to new duties in the United States as Russia sees fit.
The State Department insists it’s doing diplomatic damage control by sparing other Russian diplomatic sites from the same fate, despite giving Russia less than three days of formal notice. “We have chosen to allow the Russian Government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship,” Nauert said in a statement.
“With this action both countries will remain with three consulates each,” Nauert said.
Nauert, however, warned “the United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted.”
The senior administration official hinted the changes were reversible under the right conditions. “I can’t really say that this is permanent,” the official said. “Certainly if the Russian side wanted to try to address some of our concerns we would always be willing to listen and keep an open mind.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The move represents not-so-warm a welcome for Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s new ambassador to the United States, who just arrived in Washington after being officially appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Aug. 21. He pledged on Wednesday that he was coming to Washington “with a working spirit.”
His predecessor, Sergei Kislyak, made headlines after it emerged that he met with several Trump associates prior to the president’s inauguration in January.
“I think history will dispel these untruths in due time and America will begin to turn towards greater normalcy in relations with Russia,” Kislyak said in an interview with Russian outlet TASS shortly before his departure.
Evidently, history has not yet arrived.
Photo credit: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer