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Russia is retaliating against new US sanctions in a big way

G20 Nations Hold Hamburg Summit (Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Russia will force the US diplomatic mission in the country to eliminate hundreds of people from its workforce by September 1, President Vladimir Putin told state TV in an interview that aired on Sunday.

"More than 1,000 workers — diplomats and support staff — were working and are still working in Russia; 755 must stop their activity in the Russian Federation," Putin said, per Reuters. This does not mean, as early news reports suggested, that 755 US diplomats will be expelled from the country entirely — but it is a serious cut to America’s diplomatic presence in Russia.

The order is retaliation, plain and simple. On Thursday night, Congress overwhelmingly passed a new package of sanctions on Russia as punishment for the nation’s interference in the US election. Late on Friday, the Trump administration announced its intention to sign the sanctions bill into law. The diplomatic staffing order is Putin showing he hasn’t been cowed.

This is very much not normal; countries do not generally force other countries to limit their diplomatic presence so sharply, absent a major crisis in relations. It suggests instead that the pro-Russian stance Trump has taken, at least rhetorically, is not paying off — and that US-Russia relations are likely to keep getting worse for the foreseeable future.

What the order actually means

The first hint of this order came on Friday, after the sanctions bill sailed through Congress. The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement saying that the number of “diplomatic and technical staff,” including both US diplomats as well as Russian nationals employed as staff by the US government, would need to be reduced to a total of 455.

That number, 455, is the same number of diplomats and staff that Russia has in the United States. In December, Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats as punishment for the election hack, so it’s clear the Russians view this as a kind of symmetrical, if wildly disproportionate, response.

The US State Department does not officially confirm how many people it employs in any given foreign country, so it wasn’t clear on Friday just how severe these cuts would be. Putin’s comments on Sunday seem to be based on an estimate of 1,200 US-employed personnel in Russia: 755 (the total he said would cut) plus 455 (the total the Foreign Ministry said would remain) equals 1,200.

Initial reports that Putin would expel 755 US diplomats from Russia entirely appear to have been based on a misinterpretation of Russian media reports; there are not even close to 755 US diplomats working in Russia today. Instead, the US Embassy would be forced to eliminate roughly 755 jobs, which would likely include some held by Russian nationals (who cannot be expelled by Putin in the way that US diplomats can).

Aside from the staff themselves, these cuts will immediately affect Russians seeking to get to America.

“If these cuts are real, Russians should expect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to US,” Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, tweeted.

In the broader sense, though, the cuts create a major policy problem for the Trump administration. The president clearly wants to improve US-Russian relations, but Russia has responded to US sanctions with a rare and very forceful diplomatic escalation. If he responds in kind, his dream of rapprochement with Russia likely dies; if he does nothing, he looks weak and will face huge political backlash.

“Big escalation — and big dilemma for Trump,” Andrew Weiss, the head of research on Russia and Eurasia at the Carnegie Endowment, tweeted. “Will he roll over or retaliate?”

Regardless of what Trump does, though, it’s clear from Putin’s comments on the cut that he believes tensions with the US are here to stay.

“We waited for quite some time that maybe something will change for the better [with America], had such hope that the situation will somehow change,” the Russian leader said. “But, judging by everything, if it changes, it will not be soon.”