The U.S. said it’s slashing visa services in Russia after the Kremlin ordered it to cut two-thirds of staff at its embassy and consulates as relations between the former Cold War rivals spiraled.
All non-immigrant visa operations will be halted from Aug. 23 and will resume “on a greatly reduced scale” from Sept. 1, with applicant interviews conducted solely in Moscow, the U.S. embassy said in a website statement. Non-immigrant visa interviews at the U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok “are suspended until further notice,” according to the statement.
The decision is “due to the Russian government-imposed cap on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia,” the embassy said in its statement. President Vladimir Putin’s demand for the U.S. to cut 755 staff from its embassy and consulates by Sept. 1 “calls into question Russia’s seriousness about pursuing better relations,” it said.
Putin ordered the U.S. to cut staff at its diplomatic missions in Russia in retaliation for the passage of new sanctions legislation by the U.S. Congress last month. He said the decision would bring the U.S. total into line with the number of Russian embassy staff in the U.S. Putin added that he hoped the action would draw a line under the dispute that was triggered when the administration of then President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in December in retaliation for alleged meddling by Moscow in the U.S. presidential election.
But Andrey Klimov, a senior member of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, warned that Moscow would react to the U.S. visa-service reductions. “This is of course a demarche,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying. “We can’t leave this unanswered and everything will clearly be mirrored.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia wouldn’t “take out its anger on American citizens” and would “study closely” the U.S. decision before deciding on a response. He questioned the U.S. justification for the service cuts, saying they seemed aimed at the “political” goal of sowing discontent within Russia.
The U.S. measures will negatively affect only the small “most pro-western group of Russians,” said Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. They support ending the confrontation with the West but are too few in number to influence Kremlin decision makers, he said.
The U.S. ranked 25th of countries outside the former Soviet Union in popularity among Russians tourists in the first quarter of 2017, with 46,150 trips, according to government data. Travel has declined steadily in recent years as tensions have risen and the ruble has weakened against the dollar.
“In all probability, we can expect a further reduction in the flow” as a result of the U.S. service cuts, Maya Lomidze, executive director of the Association of Tour Operators of Russia, said by telephone.
Alexis Rodzianko, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, said wait times for visa interviews would likely grow to 4-6 months from the current two. “This decision won’t have a major impact on business because the volume of trips is small,” he said by phone. “It’s not yet clear whether there will be a special process for businesspeople or employees of American companies.”
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