UPDATE 3 — 9/3, 12:30 p.m. EDT: Russia’s foreign ministry issued a scathing statement Sunday which condemned the closure of three diplomatic posts in the U.S. a day prior.
“We treat these developments as a blatantly hostile act, a grave violation by Washington of international law,” it read. “We urge the U.S. authorities to come to their senses and immediately return the Russian diplomatic facilities. Otherwise the USA will bear total blame for the ongoing degradation of the relations between our countries.”
UPDATE 2 — 6:16 p.m. EDT: AP reported Friday the San Francisco Fire Department was called after smoke had been seen billowing from the Russian consulate, after which firefighters on-the-scene were turned back by Kremlin officials.
“They had a fire going in their fireplace,” said city spokeswoman Mindy Talamadge. “It was not unintentional. They were burning something”.
The San Francisco–Oakland–San Jose and Sacramento metropolitan areas have a combined Russian speaking population of approximately 375,000.
UPDATE — 11:26 a.m. EDT: Speaking Friday to students at a diplomacy school in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Kremlin would retaliate against the U.S. for ordering the closure of diplomatic posts in three major coastal cities.
“We will have a tough response to the things that come totally out of the blue to hurt us and are driven solely by the desire to spoil our relations with the United States,” he said.
In an apparent attempt to turn down the temperature on the latest spat between the two countries, President Putin’s top foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, later said Russia “regrets” America’s latest order but “does not want to go into a frenzy because someone has to be reasonable and stop.”
The diplomatic row between Washington and Moscow intensified on Thursday after the U.S. Department of State ordered the closure of Russian diplomatic offices in three American cities.
Describing the gesture as a “desire for parity,” a statement announcing the decision by State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, in part, read:
“The United States has fully implemented the decision by the Government of the Russian Federation to reduce the size of our mission in Russia. We believe this action was unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”
“In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring the Russian Government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C., and a consular annex in New York City.”
Under State Department orders, Russia has until Saturday, Sept. 2, to close its consular office in San Francisco and two annex offices in New York and Washington, D.C. The East Coast annex offices house trade missions.
The order, however, does not affect Russia’s embassy in Washington or its three separate consular offices in Seattle, Houston and New York. Similarly, the closures do not reduce the number of Russian staff manning diplomatic posts in the U.S.
Russia will be able to maintain the three properties, but will be prohibited from conducting official business from the posts.
The directive follows dramatic reductions to staff at the U.S. embassy in Moscow ordered by the Kremlin in the wake of sweeping sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation by the White House in August. The U.S. recently responded by temporarily halting the issue of visas to Russian citizens.
Washington slapped Russia with stiff penalties in early August over alleged Russian interference in the November 2016 presidential elections and Russian’s actions in Crimea.
Reaction from the Kremlin was swift, but measured:
“The minister expressed regrets over the escalation of tensions in bilateral relations, which were not initiated by us. Moscow will closely study the new measures announced by the U.S., after which we will announce our reaction.”
Sec. Tillerson informed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of State’s decision to close the Russian posts in a Thursday phone call in which the pair also scheduled a sideline meeting at a UN General Assembly session in September.
The move drew praise from congressional members from both sides of the aisle, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who described the closures as “wholly appropriate.”
“The Trump administration has made the cardinal mistake of over-promising on resetting U.S.-Russia relations instead of managing the very big disagreements and sources of tension,” Russia expert Andrew Weiss told the Wall Street Journal. “Those are unlikely to diminish in the coming years, if anything they’re going to be aggravated and be more volatile just due to the accumulation of disagreements and grievances on both sides.”
[Moscow Times] [Wall Street Journal] [AP] [Reuters] [Photo courtesy San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate]