Here’s What Russia’s Decision to Reduce Diplomatic Staff Will Actually Mean

The United States must cut 755 people from its diplomatic staff by Sept. 1, Russia announced Sunday. The decision followed Friday’s proclamation that Russia would require the United States to bring its diplomatic staff down to a total of 455 people — the same number of Russian diplomatic staff in the United States.

“This is a regrettable and uncalled for act,” a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy in an email. “We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it. We have no further comment at this time.”

Seven months prior, amid intelligence reports that Russia had interfered in the U.S. presidential election, Washington expelled 35 Russian diplomats and shuttered two Russian diplomatic compounds, which it said was used for intelligence collection (the Russian Embassy denies this, and also says the seizure was a breach of U.S. and international law).

In an interview with Russian outlet Vesti, Russian President Vladimir Putin said this move was made now because that the American side had taken “a very important step in the worsening of Russian-American relations.”

The Russian response is in some respects a long delayed response to U.S. President Barack Obama, who, in the final weeks of his administration imposed sanctions on Moscow, expelled Russian diplomats, and seized the Russian compounds. Putin, at the time, did not retaliate — perhaps encouraged by aides to President-elect Donald Trump raising the prospect of warmer relations under the incoming administration.

On Thursday, however, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to hit Russia with fresh sanctions, which would, among other things, impose additional restrictions on the Russian energy and defense industries.

Russia has consistently argued that everything it does is reciprocal — if there are 455 Russian staff in the United States, then there should be the same number in Russia. The Kremlin is also set to seize two U.S. diplomatic compounds.

In fact, there aren’t 755 U.S. diplomats in Russia. Russia called for “diplomatic and technical staff” to be reduced, and many of those cut won’t be Americans at all, but local staff. “For the United States to meet Russia’s requirements by September 1, there’s no alternative but to fire a lot of Russians,” Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained to FP.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov clarified on Monday that the 755 could indeed include Russian citizens.

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