Putin Expels 755 US Diplomatic Staff After Sanctions

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After Congress passed a range of Russian sanctions on July 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin has retaliated by ordering 755 staff to leave U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia.

The sanctions, which received a near-unanimous vote of 98-2 in the Senate, were passed over Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The bill also limits President Donald Trump's ability to ease any sanctions on Moscow.  

On July 30, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the sanctions the "last drop" and said that Russia would respond "in kind," the Independent reports.

Putin maintains that the sanctions were "not provoked by anything." He expressed both his frustration and his reasoning for the retaliation to Rossiya 1 TV, a Russian news channel:

[The sanctions include] unlawful restrictions, attempts to influence other states of the world, including our allies, who are interested in developing and keeping relations with Russia. We’ve been waiting for quite a long time that maybe something would change for the better, we had hopes that the situation would change. But it looks like, it’s not going to change in the near future ... I decided that it is time for us to show that we will not leave anything unanswered.

The Russian Foreign Ministry declared a cap of 455 U.S. diplomatic staff to operate in Russia, a number that matches the number of Russian staff in the U.S.

Putin called the cut "painful" to the U.S., ABC News reports.

Diplomatic staff at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow were notified of the cuts on July 31 at a meeting led by Ambassador John F. Tefft.

"It was like a funeral," said one individual at the meeting, who chose to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak with the press.

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Although it is not clear exactly how many U.S. diplomats are currently in Russia, estimates range from about 1,000 to 1,200.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the number of diplomatic staff cut will include Russian citizens, according to Reuters. As to which diplomats would have to leave, Peskov said it was "the choice of the United States."

The cut could be the largest action against diplomatic staff in modern history, said BBC correspondent Laura Bicker.

The decision affects U.S. diplomats as well as support and technical staff.

"[It's] diplomats and technical employees," Peskov confirmed. "That is, we're not talking purely about diplomats -- obviously, there isn't that number of diplomats -- but about people with non-diplomatic status, and people hired locally, and Russian citizens who work there."

An official for the U.S. State Department called the move a "regrettable and uncalled for act."

"We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it," the official said.

Russia refrained from retaliating in December 2016, when former President Barack Obama seized two Russian-owned compounds and sent 35 diplomats out of the U.S. in response to Russia's alleged presidential election interference and its military actions against the Ukraine.

At the time, then-President-elect Trump had expressed a desire to improve diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia. Putin and Trump later met face to face at the Hamburg G-20 Summit.

Some have speculated that Putin's actions are not aimed directly at Trump, who has yet to sign the sanctions bill into law.

"Putin is sending a message that he is punishing Congress's America, and not Trump's America," wrote Alexander Baunov, a member of Russian think-tank Moscow Carnegie Center, in a Facebook post. "[Putin] has taken Trump out of the direct line of fire and spared his ego."

In addition to the staff cuts, Reuters reports that Russia will seize two U.S. diplomatic buildings in Moscow. It does not appear the Kremlin has plans to target U.S. investment in the country, as U.S.-owned businesses have been a help to Russia's economy.

Sources: Independent, ABC News, CNN, BBC News, Reuters / Photo credit: Pavel Kazachkov/Flickr,NVO/Wikimedia Commons, Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons

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