(MANILA, Philippines) — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that Washington will respond by Sept. 1 to Russia’s move to force a major reduction in American diplomatic staff, a move that echoed former President Barack Obama’s action to kick out Russian diplomats for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 American election.
Russia said recently it was forcing the U.S. to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755 people. But there’s been confusion because the U.S. is believed to have far fewer than 755 American employees in Russia.
Tillerson spoke to reporters during a visit to the Philippines. He said he communicated U.S. plans to respond by that deadline to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov when they met Sunday in Manila. Tillerson said he told Lavrov that the U.S. still hasn’t decided how it will respond. He added that he asked Lavrov “several clarifying questions” about the act of Russian retaliation.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump grudgingly signed what he called a “seriously flawed” package of sanctions against Russia. The legislation is aimed at penalizing Moscow for interference in the election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where the Kremlin has backed President Bashar Assad.
Lavrov told reporters that despite strained relations with Washington, his country was ready for more engagement with the United States on North Korea, Syria, Ukraine and other pressing matters. Lavrov said Russia and the U.S. had agreed to resume a suspended high-level diplomatic channel and Washington would send its Ukraine envoy to Moscow for negotiations.
Lavrov’s upbeat assessment came amid what the U.S. has called a diplomatic low point unseen since the end of the Cold War.
“We felt that our American counterparts need to keep the dialogue open,” Lavrov said. “There’s no alternative to that.”
Trump’s administration has argued there’s good reason for the U.S. to seek a more productive relationship. Tillerson has cited modest signs of progress in Syria, where the U.S. and Russia recently brokered a cease-fire in the war-torn country’s southwest, as a sign there’s fertile ground for cooperation.
The Syrian cease-fire reflected a return of U.S.-Russia cooperation to lower violence there. The U.S. had looked warily at a series of safe zones in Syria that Russia had negotiated along with Turkey and Iran — but not the U.S.
Lavrov cited upcoming talks involving Russia, Iran and Turkey about…