Moscow blames the Obama administration for ‘undermining Russia-U.S. relations’

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Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Russia said on September 1 it would respond harshly to any U.S. moves meant to hurt it, a day after the United States told Moscow to close its consulate in San Francisco and locations in Washington and New York.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. / Karim Jaafar, AFP

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow is examining the U.S. demand for the closure of three diplomatic missions in the United States and will respond after further study.

“We’ll react as soon as we finish our analysis,” Lavrov told students in Moscow. “We will respond harshly to things that damage us.”

Separately, a top Kremlin aide complained the U.S. move pushed bilateral ties further into tit-for-tat retaliatory measures, likening it to a hostile takeover.

“This is all being done in the style of a seizure by raiders,” Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told a news briefing when asked about the closures.

“The new steps push our bilateral relations even further into a dead end and contradict other high- level announcements,” Ushakov said.

“There have been words, but there’s no readiness to cooperate yet. This is about further escalating tensions. We regret this and will calmly think about how we might respond,” he said.

Ushakov also indicated that Russia might refrain from retaliation.

“On the other hand, one does not want to go into a frenzy because someone has to be reasonable and stop,” he said.

Lavrov and Ushakov spoke less than 24 hours after the U.S. State Department set a September 2 deadline for the closure of the Russian consulate in San Francisco and two diplomatic buildings in Washington and New York used as trade representations.

The U.S. move followed Russia’s July 28 order for the United States to reduce the number of diplomatic personnel in Russia to 455 people by September 1, which President Vladimir Putin said meant cutting 755 people.

Russian officials said that demand was Moscow’s response to a U.S. law strengthening sanctions against Russia over issues that included its alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

Lavrov blamed the United States for the exchange of punitive diplomatic steps, but avoided specifically blaming President Donald Trump or his administration — instead pointing the finger at former President Barack Obama — and said Russia wants better relations.

“It was not us but the Obama Administration that caused the entire exchange of sanctions with the purpose of undermining Russia-U.S. relations, preventing Trump from making constructive initiatives at the start of his presidency, and hindering as much as possible the fulfillment of his election pledge that a normal relationship with Russia was necessary,” Lavrov said.

“President Trump continues to say the same, and President Putin has expressed his interest many times, but this should be a two-way street based on mutual respect. We are prepared for that,” Lavrov said.

‘It takes two to tango’

The United States and Russia have blamed the other for the tit-for-tat diplomatic steps, which began when Obama ejected Russia from two diplomatic compounds in the United States and expelled 35 Russian diplomats.

That move was a response to what U.S. intelligence officials said was a campaign of cyberattacks and propaganda — ordered by Putin — to undermine faith in the U.S. electoral system and weaken Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

“[Putin] has said it many times: We do not wish to quarrel with [the United States],” Lavrov said. “We have always maintained a friendly attitude towards the American people, and now we are open for meaningful cooperation in the fields of our interests.”

“Our sincere wish is for the political atmosphere between the two countries to return to normal,” he said, then turning to dance metaphors to focus blame on the United States. “But, as you know, it takes two to tango. It seems to me our U.S. counterparts have been performing solo breakdance moves recently.”

The United States contended that it is Russia that has taken excessive steps despite its calls for parity in the sizes of the diplomatic missions.

“In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring the Russian Government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C., and a consular annex in New York City,” the State Department said. “These closures will need to be accomplished by September 2.”

‘Firm, measured action’

It said the Russian demand to bring the number of diplomatic personnel down to 455 was “unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”

“We’re taken a firm and measured action in response to Russia’s unfortunate decision earlier this year,”White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “We want to halt the downward spiral and we want to move forward towards better relations. We’ll look for opportunities to do that, but we also want to have equity in the decisions.”

The shuttering of the San Francisco facility will leave Russia with the embassy in Washington and three consulates — in Seattle, Houston, and New York City.

The United States has its embassy in Moscow and consulates in St. Petersburg, the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, and the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

“The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation’s desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides and move forward to achieve the stated goal of both our presidents: improved relations between our two countries and increased cooperation on areas of mutual concern,” the State Department statement said.

“The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted,” it said.

While Moscow forced a large cut in U.S. diplomatic staff, Russia will not be required to reduce its embassy staff in the United States despite the consulate and annex closures, and the United States does not intend to expel any of the staff who are displaced by those closures, a senior U.S. administration official said in a phone call with reporters.

“We are not expelling any Russians at this time. We have informed the Russians that they may be reassigned to other diplomatic or consular posts in the United States if they choose to do so,” the official said.

Also, while Russia will no longer be able to use the San Francisco consulate and closed annexes for diplomatic purposes, it will continue to own the properties and can dispose of them however it wishes, by selling or leasing them out, the official said.

The closure announcement came on the day that Russia’s new ambassador to the United States arrived in Washington for the first time since his appointment.

In comments to the state news agency TASS at Dulles International Airport, Anatoly Antonov cautioned patience, and alluded to a quotation from Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin.

“Right now we need to sort this out calmly, very calmly, and act professionally,” he said. “To put it like Lenin did, we don’t need hysterical outbursts.”