By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
MOSCOW — With a sweeping cut in the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has raised the stakes further in an escalating rift with the United States.
The reductions, reminiscent of massive Cold War-era expulsions of diplomats, follow stiff, new sanctions against Russia approved by the U.S. Congress.
A look at the Russian-U.S. spat and its potential repercussions.
In December 2016, following allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, President Barack Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and the closure of two Russian diplomatic recreational retreats.
Putin denied interfering in the U.S. vote and strongly protested Obama’s move, but he refrained from immediate retaliation, hoping that President Donald Trump would reverse the action.
Russian and U.S. diplomats have discussed the issue for months but failed to reach an agreement.
Putin finally decided to respond following an overwhelming approval of a new package of anti-Russian sanctions by the U.S. Congress.
The Russian Foreign Ministry declared that, as of Sept. 1, the U.S. Embassy and consular personnel will be capped at 455, the number that Russia has in the United States. Putin said it means that the U.S. will have to cut 755 of its staff, calling the blow “painful.” Russia also announced the closure of a U.S. recreational compound and warehouse facilities.
It’s the harshest retaliatory exchange since 1986, when the United States and the Soviet Union expelled dozens of diplomats.
COOPERATION IN SYRIA
During the first Trump-Putin meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany earlier in July, Russia and the U.S. sealed a deal on a safety zone in southwestern Syria. Moscow called the agreement a major breakthrough that could help end Syria’s devastating civil war.
Even as he laid out drastic cuts on the U.S. Embassy staff in televised comments Sunday, Putin emphasized the importance of the Syria deal, saying it signaled that Moscow and Washington could cooperate on global issues despite their differences. He noted the accord addresses the interests of Russia, the U.S. and regional players, including Jordan and Israel.
Despite the tensions with the U.S., Moscow probably will try to stick to the safe zone agreement, which helps secure its role as a key player in the Syrian crisis on equal par with the U.S.
A surge in U.S.-Russia tensions…