US retaliates against Russia's order to slash diplomats in Moscow

The U.S. State Department has ordered the closure of the Russian consulate in San Francisco and two other facilities in retaliation for Russia's order to reduce the number of American diplomats by more than 700.

The move tosses the ball back into Putin's court, as the tit-for-tat game of barred diplomats threatens to worsen the already tense situation between the two nuclear powers.


Washington said Thursday it had ordered the shuttering of Russia's San Francisco consulate and two diplomatic annexes in Washington and New York "in the spirit of parity," after Moscow's July demand for it to reduce its diplomatic staff.

"The United States has fully implemented the decision by the government of the Russian Federation to reduce the size of our mission in Russia," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Washington said it hoped the two sides "can avoid further retaliatory actions" and improve ties but warned it was "prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted."

Russia's foreign ministry expressed "regret at the escalation of tensions" and said it would "examine the new measures announced by the Americans in detail after which our reaction will be announced."

- 'Takes two to tango' -

But top diplomat Sergei Lavrov avoided blaming the Trump administration for the latest tensions and laid the guilt squarely at the door of his predecessor Barack Obama.

"We are open even now for constructive cooperation where it answers Russian interests," Lavrov said Friday.

"But it takes two to tango and so far our partner is, again and again, doing an individual break dance."

Lavrov is to meet his US counterpart Rex Tillerson in September in New York.

The fresh diplomatic spat is the latest twist in tortured ties between the US and Russia, which have slumped to their lowest point since the Cold War following the Kremlin's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The West slapped punishing sanctions on Russia over its meddling in its ex-Soviet neighbour, sparking a revenge embargo from Moscow against agricultural products.

Hopefully, Tillerson and Lavrov can halt the diplomatic back-and-forth and put U.S.-Russia relations back on a constructive path.

But while the retaliation against Russia is well deserved (the reduction of more than 750 American diplomats in Russia is unprecedented), improving relations depends more on Russia's behavior in Ukraine than on anything else.  Putin's actions in Syria and the Russian government's support for hacking U.S. targets are problematic but not as dangerous as Moscow's continuing efforts to destabilize Ukraine by supporting separatists.  Russia's Ukrainian military intervention – the worst kept secret in the world – could draw NATO into the conflict if the separatists try to carve out a Russian enclave in the east.  For the moment, Putin seems content to let the pot simmer, but fresh fighting can break out at any time.

Trump's desire to reconfigure U.S.-Russia relations based on the strategic necessity of confronting terrorism is a legitimate goal, but other issues appear to be pushing the two countries farther apart.  Putin would welcome cooperation, but only on his own terms.  That might not be possible for the U.S., whose patience appears to be running out with Moscow over side issues.