Russia to expel 10 US diplomats in response to American sanctions

Moscow says American ambassador should head home for consultations, warns it may later take ‘painful measures’ against US business interests

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to the media during his and Serbia's Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic joint news conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia, April 16, 2021. (Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to the media during his and Serbia's Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic joint news conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia, April 16, 2021. (Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Friday responded to a barrage of new US sanctions by saying it would expel 10 US diplomats and take other retaliatory moves in a tense showdown with Washington.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said Moscow will add eight US officials to its sanctions list and move to shut down those US nongovernment organizations that remain in Russia to end what he described as their meddling in Russia’s politics.

The top Russian diplomat said the Kremlin suggested that US Ambassador John Sullivan follow the example of his Russian counterpart and head home for consultations. Russia will also move to deny the US Embassy the possibility to hire personnel from Russia and third countries as support staff, limit visits by US diplomats serving short-term stints at the embassy, and tighten requirements for US diplomats’ travel in the country.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2020 US presidential election and involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies — activities Moscow has denied. The US ordered 10 Russian diplomats expelled, targeted dozens of companies and people, and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money.

While the US wields the power to cripple the Russian economy, Moscow lacks levers to respond in kind, although it potentially could hurt American interests in many other ways around the globe.

Lavrov noted that while Russia could take “painful measures” against American business interests in Russia, it wouldn’t immediately move to do that and “save them for future use.”

He warned that if Washington moves to further crank up the pressure, Russia might ask the US to reduce the number of its embassy and consular staff from about 450 to 300. He said Russia and the US each have about 450 diplomats, but for Russia the number includes some 150 UN personnel that he argued shouldn’t be part of the equation.

The US Embassy with its national flag, seen behind a monument to the Workers of 1905 Revolution in Moscow, Russia, December 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

Russia’s economic potential and its global reach are limited compared with the Soviet Union that competed with the US for international influence during the Cold War. Still, Russia’s nuclear arsenal and its leverage in many parts of the world make it a power that Washington needs to reckon with.

Aware of that, US President Joe Biden called for de-escalating tensions and held the door open for cooperation with Russia in certain areas. Biden said he told Putin in Tuesday’s call that he chose not to impose tougher sanctions for now and proposed to meet in a third country in the summer.

Lavrov said Russia had a “positive attitude” to the summit offer and was analyzing it, but a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry shortly after noted that it ”was being studied in the context of the evolving situation.”

While the new US sanctions further limited Russia’s ability to borrow money by banning US financial institutions from buying Russian government bonds directly from state institutions, they didn’t target the secondary market.

“It’s very important that there’re no sanctions on secondary debt because that means that non-US persons can buy the debt and sell it to the US persons,” said Tom Adshead, director of research at Macro-Advisory Ltd, an analytics and advisory company.

Tougher restrictions would also hurt Western businesses, inflict significant economic pain on the Russian population and allow Putin to rally anti-US sentiments to shore up his rule.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 4, 2021. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Ramping up sanctions could eventually drive Russia into a corner and provoke even more reckless Kremlin action, such as a potential escalation in Ukraine, which has recently faced a surge in clashes with Russia-backed separatists in the east and a massive Russian troops buildup across the border.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in Paris on Friday to discuss the tensions with French President Emmanuel Macron. After a joint call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the three urged Russia to pull its troops back from the border to de-escalate the situation.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a top foreign policy expert who leads the Moscow-based Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, predicted Putin would likely accept Biden’s invitation to join next week’s call on climate change but could drag his feet on accepting the summit offer.

“There is no way to make any deals,” Lukyanov said. “There is a mutual antipathy and a total lack of trust.”

He charged that the only practical outcome of the summit could be an agreement to launch long and difficult talks on a replacement to the New START nuclear reduction agreement that Russia and the US extended in February for another five years.

Lukyanov noted that the growing US pressure will push Russia and China closer in the long run.

“Closer cooperation with China on coordinating actions to contain the United States will develop more quickly now as the Chinese are interested in that,” he said. While Russia lacks tools for a symmetrical answer to the US sanctions, “it has ample capabilities to stimulate changes in the world order,” he added.

Konstantin Kosachev, the Kremlin-connected deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, said that by hitting Russia with sanctions and proposing a summit at the same time, the US sought to take a commanding stance.

“Russia’s consent would be interpreted as a reflection of its desire to soften the sanctions, allowing the US to secure a dominant position at the meeting, while our refusal to meet would be a convenient pretext for more punitive measures,” Kosachev wrote on Facebook.

He argued that Russia should not rush to accept Biden’s summit offer.

“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” Kosachev wrote. “I believe the saying is quite adaptable to a situation when we talk not about revenge but a due answer to aggressive action by an opponent.”

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

Some predicted the US sanctions could discourage Russia from cooperating with the US on international crises.

“The Russian position will grow tougher on Syria, the Iranian nuclear deal and other issues,” Ivan Timofeev, program director at Russian International Affairs Council, said in a commentary. Instead of acting as a deterrent, he warned, the sanctions would “only anger Russia and make its policy even tougher.”

However, any attempt by Russia to undermine American interests would dangerously escalate tensions with the US and trigger even harder sanctions — something the Kremlin certainly wants to avoid.

Despite the soaring tensions, Russia and the US have shared interests in many global hot spots. For example, Moscow fears that instability could spread from Afghanistan to former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and it is interested in a political settlement there.

As for Iran, Moscow also doesn’t want to see it with nuclear weapons, despite its friendly ties with Tehran.

Lukyanov said Russia wouldn’t try to use global hot spots to hurt the US and would wait patiently to see them erode US domination.

“It’s not a matter of playing the spoiler here or there,” he said. “The ongoing developments will help accelerate the process of consolidation of leading powers against the US domination.”

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