WASHINGTON ― On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to new sanctions from Washington by ordering the U.S. to cut its diplomatic staff in his country by more than half by Sept. 1. That would bring the U.S. diplomatic mission down to 455 ― roughly the same number of people that Russia employs in the U.S.
It is not yet clear how Washington plans to comply with the directive, although Moscow’s move will likely exacerbate already plummeting relations between the two countries. Veteran diplomats say these latest events remind them of a Cold War quarrel when the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.
After several rounds of expulsions in 1986, the Soviet Union banned approximately 200 locally hired Soviet nationals from working for the U.S. diplomatic mission. The move was meant to “bring the [U.S.] embassy to its knees,” said Steven Pifer, a retired foreign service officer who worked at the embassy in Moscow at the time. Local hires handled mundane tasks like cleaning toilets and picking up milk shipments. Because they were familiar with the language, culture and Soviet bureaucracy, they also tended to act as fixers for American diplomats.
Determined not to let the Soviet Union shutter their operations, American diplomats created a rotating schedule in which they periodically set aside their regular duties to do the work previously done by the local hires. “Every two weeks instead of writing cables, I came to work dressed in dungarees,” recalled retired diplomat John Herbst, who was also employed at the Moscow embassy. Pifer and Herbst remembered driving to the border to pick up shipments, unloading trucks and cleaning bathrooms. Even the spouses of embassy staffers pitched in.
“It became a source of humor and amusement” among the American foreign service officers, Herbst said. “We were going to be damned if we were going to let the Soviets get one on us.”
We were going to be damned if we were going to let the Soviets get one on us. Retired diplomat John Herbst
Washington eventually sent contractors to help the U.S. diplomats in Moscow, and the embassy went back to hiring Russian nationals after the Soviet Union fell. Today, the U.S. mission in Russia relies heavily on local hires. In 2013, the mission employed 1,279 staffers, 934 of which were local hires. (The State Department declined to share more current figures, but staffing levels at the embassy tend to remain constant.)
Maria Olson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, referred all questions about reducing the diplomatic staff to the State Department. A State Department spokeswoman said in an email that the agency is assessing the impact of reducing its staff in Russia to 455 people and how it will respond to Putin’s demand.
American officials expected Moscow to retaliate last year after President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response to Russian interference in the U.S. election. Moscow initially held off after private conversations with Trump transition officials about the sanctions. But once Congress passed additional sanctions against Russia last week, Putin moved to slash American embassy staffing.
Jeffrey Edmonds, the former director for Russia at the White House National Security Council, said he was taken aback by the magnitude of Putin’s response. Edmonds was part of the team that came up with a list of options in response to Russia’s election meddling at the end of the Obama administration.
“It’s significant that it’s such a big number,” he said. “We expected them to respond with 35. It’s almost always symmetric.”
Putin’s dramatic demand indicates that Moscow has given up hope the Trump administration will reverse the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations, Edmonds said. “There was this initial euphoria over Trump getting elected, but that has slowly dwindled ― and now they’re just resigned to the fact that, from their perspective, Washington is just anti-Russian,” he said.
While a massive reduction in embassy staffing will once again create a burden for American diplomats, it also puts the hundreds of Russian nationals employed by the U.S. in danger of losing their jobs. That could be the goal, said Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia. Putin “is going to want to try to make us look bad and make us look like we are mean to the Russian people ― he’s probably hoping that we cut Russian local personnel,” she said.
Embassy staffing cuts could also translate into longer wait times for Russian tourists and businesspeople applying for visas to the U.S. “It’s another example of the Russian government cutting off its nose to spite the Russian people’s face,” Farkas said. They “are lashing out and basically denying services to their people that our embassy provides.”
Cold War-era diplomats said they expect that current foreign service officers will find creative ways to keep embassy operations running even with less than half as many staffers.
“Unless our diplomats are wusses, it will all be fine,” Herbst said. “And I don’t think they are wusses.”