Trump ramps up Russia tension with consulate shutdown

Trump ramps up Russia tension with consulate shutdown
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The Trump administration has retaliated against Russia for expelling American diplomats by shuttering Russia’s oldest consulate in the United States along with two annexes, the latest sign of tensions between Washington and Moscow rising despite Trump’s public desire for warmer relations.

The closures were positioned by the State Department as done in the spirit of “parity,” and administration officials have underlined the ultimate goal of improving relations with Russia. Moscow, however, has reacted by accusing the U.S. of escalating tensions, leaving the door open for further retaliation.

The development is the latest in Trump’s rocky relationship with Russia, one that has been consistently viewed in the context of the ongoing investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Moscow during the 2016 election.

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Trump critics have hailed the new restrictions on Russian diplomats, which come as a response to a Russian order in July that the U.S. cut diplomatic personnel in the country to 455. That Russian order was itself a response to new penalties imposed on Moscow over election interference.

“It’s a necessary reaction given what Vladimir Putin did,” Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Obama administration, told MSNBC. “We had to respond. I would have liked to see a bigger response, but this is better than no response at all.”

The State Department abruptly announced the move on Thursday, confirming that the U.S. had complied with Russia’s “unwarranted and detrimental” request to reduce its personnel. The new U.S. order gave Moscow just two days to close down the San Francisco consulate — the Kremlin’s oldest and most established in the country — as well as two trade annexes in Washington and New York.

“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 of our presidents: improved relations between our two countries and increased cooperation on areas of mutual concern,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted.”

U.S. officials and Russian embassy personnel walked through the properties on Saturday to ensure they were vacated and to "secure and protect the facilities," a senior State Department official confirmed to Fox News.

"The Department of State can confirm that the Russian government complied with the order to vacate its Consulate and two annexes," the official said.

The U.S. and Russia now each maintain three consulates within one another’s respective borders, at a time when their relationship is widely perceived to be at its lowest point since the Cold War. 

“The issue is, what do the Russians decide to do next?” said Steven Pifer, a retired Foreign Service officer who spent over 25 years with the State Department. “There’s not a large chance, but there’s a chance that you could end up with no consulates in either country.”

“There are probably a number in Moscow who don’t want to play that game,” Pifer, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pledged Friday that Russia “will have a tough response to the things that come totally out of the blue to hurt us and are driven solely by the desire to spoil our relations with the United States.”

Russia's foreign ministry drafted a formal "note of protest" to the United States' over the latest move, and summoned Anthony Godfrey, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, to receive it on Saturday. 

The White House on Thursday cast the decision as a “firm and measured action” that had been made by Trump, but rejected the notion that the relationship is at a decades-low point.

“We want to halt the downward spiral and we want to move forward towards better relations," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said. "But we're also going to make sure that we make decisions that are best for our country.”

The development has added further uncertainty to the president’s ultimate strategy toward Russia. Less than a month ago, Trump was seen “thanking” Russia for expelling the diplomats, a statement the White House later cast as sarcastic.

“It is reassuring for the countries most worried about Russian revisionism,” said Dalibor Rohac, an expert on Europe at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “But it hardly alleviates the worries about the ambiguous stance that POTUS has taken towards Russia.”

Trump raised eyebrows during the presidential campaign by repeatedly praising Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As recently as Monday, Trump declined to single out Russia as a “security threat” when asked about Moscow’s role in escalating the situation in the Baltic region.

“I hope that we do have good relations with Russia,” Trump told reporters at a joint press briefing with the president of Finland. “I say it loud and clear, I have been saying it for years. I think it's a good thing if we have great relationships, or at least good relationships, with Russia.”

Pifer said that he has been “puzzled” by Trump’s statements on Russia because he does not articulate the need for Russia to change its behavior when calling for warmer ties. 

“While I agree with the sentiment, I am puzzled by his reluctance to be critical of Russia,” Pifer said.

Other administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Regulation: Trump adviser affirms plans to leave climate deal | FDA to study new cigarette warning labels | DOJ investigating Equifax stock sales Top US security official targeted in Cuba Embassy covert attacks: report Trump adviser tells foreign officials no change on Paris climate deal MORE, have signaled to Russia that the U.S. stance will remain the same unless the Kremlin changes its policies on to Ukraine and other issues.

“You see the administration internally struggling given differences between the cabinet and the president,” said Peter Harrell, a former State Department official under Obama who worked on sanctions policy. 

A senior administration official told reporters on Thursday that the U.S. welcomes the opportunity to improve relations in the event that Russia addresses certain “concerns.”

“We have areas of contention between our two countries and concerns that the Russian side has not addressed,” the official said. “Certainly, if the Russian side wanted to address some of our concerns, we would always be willing to listen and keep an open mind because our fundamental goal is to find a way to improve the relations between our countries.”

The closure of the facilities is the latest in a tit-for-tat fight between the U.S. government and the Kremlin that was triggered when Congress passed a bill levying new sanctions against Moscow earlier this number. Trump was forced to sign the bill, which also restricts the president’s ability to ease sanctions on Russia, after it passed with a veto-proof majority. 

For now, Moscow appears to still be considering its response. The administration gave Russia until Saturday to close down the facilities.

“The new steps push our bilateral relations even further into a dead end and contradict other high level announcements,” a Kremlin foreign policy aide told reporters on Friday.

“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.”