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US ‘reviewing options’ after Russian President Vladimir Putin orders embassy cuts

White House had only a low-key response to President Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary demand that the US embassy in Russia cut its local and American staff by 755.

world Updated: Aug 01, 2017 22:32 IST
A Russian flag flies next to the US embassy building in Moscow.
A Russian flag flies next to the US embassy building in Moscow.(AFP Photo)

The United States has said it was “reviewing” its options on how to respond to Moscow ordering a drastic scaling down of personnel at its diplomatic mission in Russia in retaliation for new American sanctions and tightening of those already in place.

“Right now we’re reviewing our options,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Monday in response to questions. “And when we have something to say on it, we’ll let you know.”

Kremlin instructed the US embassy in Moscow last Sunday to cut 755 employees from its staff from the total of 1,200 by September — most of whom will be local Russians. It also announced it was seizing two diplomatic properties owned by the US.

This was in retaliation to the passage last week of a legislation by US congress increasing sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, codifying existing ones and more significantly, preventing President Donald Trump from rolling back those applying to Russia, which he appears to have been keen on in order to reset ties with Moscow.

The bill was passed by both chambers of congress with overwhelming support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers brought together by their shared concerns about the president’s apparent soft position on Russia, his admiration for its president Vladimir Putin and an eagerness to engage with him and his readiness to roll back the sanctions.

The legislation includes a provision of “congressional review” — if the president wants to ease the sanctions, he has to first notify congress— which will have 30 days to prevent him from proceeding with it.

The White House had earlier sent mixed signals about Trump’s intentions, with some aides stating he would veto it. But it stated unequivocally past Sunday that, “He has now reviewed the final version and, based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it.”

President Barack Obama had ordered 35 Russian diplomats to leave the United States last December in retaliation for alleged interference by Moscow in 2016 president elections, and had also cancelled the lease of two diplomatic compounds used by Russians.

Russia did not retaliate then, as it would have normally, and was in talks, it’s now known, with the incoming Trump administration about rolling back those sanctions. ‘’I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only, is possible, absolutely possible,” Trump had said in his first major speech on foreign policy as a candidate. This was before Russian meddling became known.

He had added: “Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries. Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out.”

After taking office, Trump has been seen loathe to acknowledge Russian meddling, despite assertions of the American intelligence community, and was seen as too eager to accept Russian denials, as he got from President Vladimir Putin during their meetings on the sidelines of the recent G-20 in Hamburg Germany.