State Department officials are struggling to operate the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia, having lost 90% of their staff as a result of a sanctions-related controversy that could force the embassy in Moscow to the brink of closure.
“We're not going to be able to carry on as we have over the last several years,” a senior State Department official told reporters in Washington. “We're going to confront the situation — not next month, but sometime next year — where it's just difficult for us to continue with anything other than a caretaker presence at the embassy.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government banned the U.S. Embassy from hiring Russian nationals earlier this summer. That measure came in apparent retaliation for U.S. sanctions imposed as punishment for major cyberattacks and the imprisonment of the Putin critic who survived an attempted assassination last summer, in tandem with a controversy involving the Czech Republic’s crackdown on an alleged Russian spy scandal.
That acrimonious spiral that has cost the U.S. Embassy 90% of their staff over the last four years — from 1,200 people to “approximately 120,” the official added. So Russian citizens who seek visas to the United States must get them from other embassies, such as Warsaw.
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“We just don't have the bandwidth to provide the consular services, particularly non-immigrant visa services or even immigrant visa services to Russians,” the official said. “We are limited to providing services to Americans — American citizens services.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the United States of “destroying the system of consular services in Russia.” Yet Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s team maintains that the lack of visas for Americans to come to Russia has made it difficult for the embassy even to conduct basic maintenance of the U.S. diplomatic facilities, raising a series of difficult practical concerns, right down to operating the embassy gates.
“The barriers, particularly in the Russian winter, break down a lot, and we need American technicians to go out and fix them,” the senior State Department official said. “It’s not inconceivable, if we lose some of those people [and] we don’t get replacements, we might not even be able to drive a car out of [the gates] ... We’re reduced in many cases to a single person who is our phone tech, or our elevator repair person.”
Some leading Senate Democrats have urged President Joe Biden to expel as many as 300 Russian government personnel from the United States if Putin refuses to relent on the staffing crisis. Blinken’s team declined to forecast any such punishments but acknowledged the U.S. Embassy could approach dormancy if the problems persist.
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“We will do everything humanly possible to keep that mission open, because it is extremely important,” the senior State Department official said. “We’ll keep the mission, but we’re going to be reduced to not being able to do even more basic functions, just as we’ve had to shut down visas. There’ll be fewer cables back to D.C. from Moscow, for example.”