The latest move on Thursday came from Foggy Bottom, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to give Russia three days to vacate three consular facilities in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.
The move came the same day that Anatoly Antonov, the new Russian ambassador to the U.S., arrived in the country, reportedly quoting Lenin. Antonov relieves Sergei Kislyak, the longtime diplomat whose repeated meetings and conversations with Trump associates formed a subplot of the Trump-Russia interactions currently under federal and congressional investigation.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert portrayed the measure “in the spirit of parity” for a Russian announcement in late July that the U.S. would have to leave some of its own facilities and reduce its staff to 455 personnel. That move came in retaliation for congressionally mandated U.S. sanctions that Trump reluctantly signed.
And that followed a December decision by the outgoing Obama administration to oust Russian spies from diplomatic facilities on Long Island and the eastern shore of Maryland—itself a retaliation for what U.S. intelligence has assessed was Russian interference in the 2016 election to benefit Trump.
Tillerson told Lavrov that the U.S. has completed its staff reduction to the Russian-mandated total and informed Lavrov that Russians would have to leave the three outposts, described by a senior administration official as “trade missions.” Since Russian staff at those facilities will not have to leave the country, according to the official, it is unlikely that the U.S. was again expelling Russian intelligence officials.
Asked by The Daily Beast if Thursday’s ordered facilities closures mean the administration is no longer considering the return of the New York and Maryland facilities—as the White House had reportedly been considering—the senior official said only, “There’s no development on that right now.”
The San Francisco consulate-general is the “oldest and most established” of Russian consulates in the U.S., the official said, which will now total three. The D.C. location is a chancery annex and the New York one a consular annex. While the Russians own two of the buildings outright and lease the third, the only permitted activities there after Sept. 2 will be protection and maintenance.
But the U.S. is now hoping that the “parity” it describes will end the diplomatic retaliation. The official said State wanted to “arrest the downward spiral in our relationship”—a downward spiral that has not stopped Trump and Tillerson from accepting Russia’s agenda for Syria, and sparing Putin from reprisal for the election hacking Trump still does not accept occurred and U.S. officials predict will recur.
Tillerson and Lavrov agreed to meet in September, according to the senior official, most likely on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly.
The Russian embassy in Washington declined to comment, deferring to Moscow for official reaction. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Tillerson Thursday that “Moscow will closely study the moves on closing Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S.,” according to Russia’s Tass News Agency. “The minister expressed regrets over an escalation of tensions in bilateral relations that we were not the ones to initiate," Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
Russian experts predicted an extended period of frosty relations well into 2018.
“President Trump is too constrained by domestic opposition and President [Vladimir] Putin is also constrained because he faces re-election in much of next year,” said Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, in an interview Thursday.
Kortunov, whose think tank advises the Russian Foreign Ministry, predicted the two sides would keep talking on “tactical” matters, but there’d be none of the warming of diplomatic relations Russians had hoped for when Trump was first elected.
“We will see some tactical steps away from the collapse of the relationship—some renewed dialogue, some limited cooperation on Syria and North Korea… but the name of the game right now is expectation management,” he said.
“It’s really is about time,” said Steve Hall, retired CIA chief of Russia operations. “I think this is the only thing the Russians understand particularly well.”
“There have been multiple times in the past… when Russians had misbehaved,” and the Obama administration reacted by sending a strong statement instead of taking action, Hall said in an interview. “They understand they can just hold their noses and there won’t be any consequences.”
By closing their San Francisco operation in particular, the State Department is striking at the heart of Moscow’s information gathering network in Silicon Valley—likely a key component of their fall campaign to influence the U.S. elections.
“We’re beginning to understand more completely how big and important it is to the Russians to have access and footholds into U.S. cyber networks,” Hall said. “All of that will be made much more difficult by closing the San Francisco office.”
“I think tensions are high but both sides are trying to control them,” said Russia watcher Jacob Shapiro, Director of Analysis for Geopolitical Futures. He pointed to a recent positive meeting between Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov and the new U.S special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.
That’s balanced against Secretary of Defense James Mattis going to Ukraine, which Shapiro called “some chin music to the Russians—but we still haven't approved supplying the type of weapons that would really get Russia's attention there.” Shapiro said he’s watching what Russia does next in the Balkans or the Caucasus to message displeasure Washington.