By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — The United States plans to close its last two consulates in Russia, leaving only an embassy in Moscow as relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate.
The State Department confirmed on December 19 that the United States will shutter its consulate in Vladivostok in the Far East and suspend operations at the consulate in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in consultation with Ambassador John Sullivan, decided to close the two consulates “as part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the safe and secure operation of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Russian Federation,” a State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL in a statement.
“The Department’s decision on the U.S. consulates in Russia was taken to optimize the work of the U.S. mission in Russia,” the spokesperson said. Some diplomatic personnel would be moved to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow “to advance our foreign policy interests in Russia in the most effective and safe manner possible.”
The decision will not impact Russian consulates in the United States.
The State Department notified Congress on December 10 that it planned to close the two consulates, the Associated Press reported on December 18.
The notice to Congress was sent three days before it publicly emerged that suspected Russian government hackers were behind a massive cyberattack on the U.S. government and other entities. Pompeo on December 18 said “that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”
A copy of the notification to Congress stated that the move was “in response to ongoing staffing challenges of the U.S. Mission in Russia in the wake of the 2017 Russian-imposed personnel cap on the U.S. Mission and resultant impasse with Russia over diplomatic visas.”
Russia ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg in 2018 in a tit-for-tat move after the United States ordered the Russian consulate in Seattle to shutter over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal on British soil.
It’s unclear why the United States is closing the consulates now, nearly three years after the cap on the number of American diplomats was imposed. The timing of the closures was not mentioned, and it’s unclear whether it will occur before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20.
The consulate in Vladivostok has been closed since March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The consulates in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg employ a total of 10 American diplomats and 33 local staff.
The American diplomats will be relocated to the embassy in Moscow, while the locals will be laid off, according to the notice.
Following the closures, the United States would only have diplomatic representation in Moscow. That would leave all consular services for Americans and visa operations for Russians to be run from Moscow. It would also lessen U.S. diplomatic outreach across the vast country.
“Hard to understand logic of this. Important to know what is happening outside of capital in country that spans 11 time zones,” Steven Pifer, a former State Department official focused on U.S. relations with the former Soviet Union and Europe, wrote on Twitter.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said the United States needs consulates to promote public diplomacy.
“The U.S. should be seeking ways to engage more directly with Russian society. These consulates help,” he wrote on Twitter.
He noted that even with a cap on the number of American diplomats, the United States can choose how to deploy diplomats within those limits to maintain a presence outside of Moscow.