After the United States imposed fresh sanctions on Russia over its meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, President Vladimir Putin announced retaliatory steps, including an order that the U.S. reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia from 1,210 to 455 -- a cut of 755 people, or around 60 percent of its diplomatic staff -- by September 1.
On August 21, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, citing the "Russian government-imposed cap" on its staff levels, announced it would temporarily stop issuing all non-immigrant visas from Russia until September 1.
It also said that starting on September 1, nonimmigrant visa interviews would be conducted only at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and no longer at the U.S. consulates in three other Russian cities.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the U.S. decision on visas, calling it “one more attempt to draw disfavor from Russian citizens toward the actions of Russian authorities.”
In a separate statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the visa offices of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia of “inadequate efficiency” and repeated Lavrov’s allegation.
“The goal is obvious − to try to provoke the discontent of Russian citizens with the difficulties purportedly caused by the staff reduction of US diplomatic and consular missions,” the ministry stated.
Meanwhile, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying: “Linking the reduction in the number of [U.S. diplomatic] staff with the processing of [U.S.] visas does not stand up to scrutiny, since no one expelled the Americans, no one dictated or specified who to send home and who to leave. Accordingly, if Washington decides to reduce the number of people engaged in visa matters, it will be Washington’s decision -- sovereign, deliberate and by no means forced."
Asked for reaction to the comments by Zakharova and other Russian Foreign Ministry officials, a U.S. State Department official told the Voice of America: “We are forced to reduce consular services by Russia’s requirement that we reduce the size of our mission.”
For his part, Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Polygraph.info: “It is ludicrous for the Russian Foreign Ministry to suggest that this scale of personnel reduction would not affect consular operations.”
The U.S. State Department official said: “It should be obvious that when a host country imposes a cap on the number of mission personnel and demands we cut our mission by, as President Putin announced, 755 positions, there will inevitably be a reduction in the services we can provide.”
After September 1, visa services will operate at reduced capacity “for as long as our staffing levels are reduced by the Government of Russia,” the State Department official told VOA.
“The embassy's leadership had to make decisions about how to apportion those reductions, given the mission's overall priorities,” Pifer said.
Apart from embassy in Moscow, the U.S. has Consulate Generals in three other Russian cities – St. Petersburg, Vladivistok and Yekaterinburg –– all providing visa services to Russian citizens as well as to the citizens of Belarus, a country with which the U.S. has no diplomatic relations.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, it and the three U.S. consulates are focusing on providing emergency and routine services to U.S. citizens.
Residents of Belarus can no longer apply for U.S. visas in Russia. They must now apply for visas at the U.S. embassies in Poland, Kyiv, or Lithuania.