The Cable

Here’s What Russia’s Decision to Reduce Diplomatic Staff Will Actually Mean

It’s likely Russian staff will feel it the most.


The United States must cut 755 people from its diplomatic staff by Sept. 1, Russia announced Sunday. The decision followed Friday’s proclamation that Russia would require the United States to bring its diplomatic staff down to a total of 455 people — the same number of Russian diplomatic staff in the United States.

“This is a regrettable and uncalled for act,” a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy in an email. “We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it. We have no further comment at this time.”

Seven months prior, amid intelligence reports that Russia had interfered in the U.S. presidential election, Washington expelled 35 Russian diplomats and shuttered two Russian diplomatic compounds, which it said was used for intelligence collection (the Russian Embassy denies this, and also says the seizure was a breach of U.S. and international law).

In an interview with Russian outlet Vesti, Russian President Vladimir Putin said this move was made now because that the American side had taken “a very important step in the worsening of Russian-American relations.”

The Russian response is in some respects a long delayed response to U.S. President Barack Obama, who, in the final weeks of his administration imposed sanctions on Moscow, expelled Russian diplomats, and seized the Russian compounds. Putin, at the time, did not retaliate — perhaps encouraged by aides to President-elect Donald Trump raising the prospect of warmer relations under the incoming administration.

On Thursday, however, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to hit Russia with fresh sanctions, which would, among other things, impose additional restrictions on the Russian energy and defense industries.

Russia has consistently argued that everything it does is reciprocal — if there are 455 Russian staff in the United States, then there should be the same number in Russia. The Kremlin is also set to seize two U.S. diplomatic compounds.

In fact, there aren’t 755 U.S. diplomats in Russia. Russia called for “diplomatic and technical staff” to be reduced, and many of those cut won’t be Americans at all, but local staff. “For the United States to meet Russia’s requirements by September 1, there’s no alternative but to fire a lot of Russians,” Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained to FP.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov clarified on Monday that the 755 could indeed include Russian citizens.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow did not immediately respond to request for comment.

That Russians who will lose their jobs might actually not be seen as a bad thing by the government or Kremlin. “I’d note that the Russians have never liked this practice and have in some previous cases pressured the embassy to fire Russian staff,” Matthew Rojansky of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told FP.

Oliker noted that, while the announcement was supposed to make life more difficult for the U.S. embassy in Russia, it will also hurt those Russians hoping to travel to the United States. If diplomatic staff is reduced by more than half, all functions will be made more arduous — including scheduling interviews for visas, an already drawn out process for many in Russia.

The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. told FP it is up to the United States who will leave Russia, and encouraged FP to look at how much time it takes to get a U.S. visa from Russia today. According to the State Department’s website, the appointment wait time is 38 calendar days. The Russian Embassy noted, “in D.C. we have practically no ‘line’ to apply for [a] Russian visa.”

Be that as it may, the diplomatic dustup is something of a sign that any hopes Russia had for rapprochement with the United States under Trump have been dashed.

“This is clearly a signal regarding the Kremlin’s expectations for deepening conflict with Washington,” Rojansky said. “Embassy staff are key to facilitating all kinds of bilateral work … With fewer staff, there will be less bandwidth for cooperative work, period.”

FP staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this post.

Photo credit: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a foreign affairs reporter at BuzzFeed. She was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2016-2018. @emilyctamkin

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