By RFE RL
By Mike Eckel*
(RFE/RL) — The United States has ordered the closure of Russia’s consulate in San Francisco, escalating a diplomatic tit-for-tat that followed Moscow’s order for a sharp cut in U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia.
The State Department said in a statement August 31 that two other diplomatic buildings in Washington and New York used as trade annexes must also be shuttered.
“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,” the statement said. “These closures will need to be accomplished by September 2.”
The move followed last month’s order by Russia that the United States cut its diplomatic personnel in the country by 755 to 455 people. Russian officials cited a new sanctions law passed by Congress as the cause for the cut.
“We believe this action was unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries,” the department said.
The shuttering of the San Francisco facility will leave Russia with the main embassy facility in Washington and three other consular posts on the territory of the United States — in Seattle, on the northwestern Pacific coast; in Houston, in the southern state of Texas; and in New York City, on the East Coast.
“The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation’s desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides and move forward to achieve the stated goal of both our presidents: improved relations between our two countries and increased cooperation on areas of mutual concern,” the statement said.
“The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted,” it said.
The order to close the San Francisco facility was a marked escalation in the back-and-forth between Moscow and Washington and a reflection of just how poisoned bilateral relations have become.
President Donald Trump’s election was openly welcomed in Moscow, where many officials anticipated warmer ties, something Trump himself had repeatedly called for.
That optimism has quieted, however, as the Trump administration has not moved to make any of the concrete conciliatory gestures Moscow has requested.
Foremost among those requests was the return of two diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York’s Long Island that had been ordered closed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, in December for what he said was retaliation for Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election. U.S. officials alleged the facilities were used for intelligence gathering.
Obama also ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats.
In July, after it became clear that Washington did not intend to return those facilities, Russia said it was seizing a bucolic riverside property in Moscow used by U.S. diplomats for years, along with a warehouse.
The reports of Russian interference has dogged Trump since he took office in January, with four different congressional committees investigating either that alleged meddling or interactions between Trump associates and Russian officials.
The FBI has had a criminal investigation into those interactions ongoing since July and the probe is now being overseen by a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who has reportedly used a grand jury to get testimony from both Americans and Russians.
Asked about the State Department announcement, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said decision was made by Trump and she called it “a firm and measured action in response to Russia’s unfortunate decision earlier this year.”
“We want to halt the downward spiral and we want to move forward toward better relations and we’re going to look for opportunities to do that,” Sanders told reporters.
In a statement released shortly after the State Department announcement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on August 31.
Lavrov “expressed regret at the escalation of tensions in bilateral relations, not started by us, and stated that Moscow is closely studying the announcement by the Americans of new measures, after which our response will be communicated,” the Foreign Ministry said.
The Foreign Ministry has already complained about the reduction in U.S. diplomatic personnel, in particular U.S. announcements that processing of nonimmigrant visas will be severely curtailed, if not halted altogether.
The closure announcement came on the same day that Russia’s new ambassador to the United States arrived in Washington for the first time since his appointment. In comments to the state news agency Tass made at Dulles international airport, Anatoly Antonov cautioned patience, and alluded to a quotation from Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin.
“Right now we need to sort this out calmly, very calmly, and act professionally,” he was quoted as saying. “To quote Lenin, we don’t need hysterical outbursts.”