Bipartisan senators call for Biden to confront Moscow over staffing ban at US embassies

Bipartisan senators call for Biden to confront Moscow over staffing ban at US embassies
© Greg Nash

Democratic and Republican senators are urging President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE to confront Russia or expel its diplomats in the U.S. over the Kremlin’s downsizing of American missions in the country. 

In a letter to the president sent Monday, top lawmakers on the committees for Foreign Relations and Intelligence warn that Russian actions to restrict the number of locally employed staff at the U.S. embassies present a “substantial national security risk” and significantly restrict operations. 

The letter comes in response to Russian legislation that instituted a ban on its citizens working for foreign embassies, in particular those deemed “unfriendly” to the Russian federation, resulting in the layoff in August of nearly 200 locally employed Russian staff and contractors at U.S. missions across the country.

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This resulted in operations being suspended at the U.S. mission in Vladivostok and halting consular services in Yekaterinburg. Operations at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have continued. 

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense & National Security — Quick vote on defense bill blocked again Kremlin claims Ukraine may try to win back rebel-controlled regions by force Blinken: Iran actions risk collapse of new talks MORE at the time called the move “unfortunate” and warned in a statement that the downsizing would have a severe impact on the U.S. mission and potentially harm the safety of personnel and diplomatic engagement with Russia. 

The letter to the president was signed by the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sens. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Spending bill faces Senate scramble Republicans raise concerns over Biden's nominee for ambassador to Germany MORE (D-N.J.) and James Risch (R-Idaho); chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerLiberty University professor charged with alleged sexual battery and abduction of student Five Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House to vote on Biden social spending bill after McCarthy delay MORE (D-Va.); and 14 senators from both parties. 

“We ask that your national security team take immediate, concrete steps to provide U.S. Embassy Moscow with the staffing and support it needs by taking responsible, proportional, and immediate actions in response to the provocations undertaken by the Russian Government,” the lawmakers wrote.   

The senators called for the administration to push Russia to issue hundreds of visas to American diplomats to serve in the country as parity for the estimated 400 Russian diplomats serving in the U.S. or risk expulsions. 

“If such action is not taken, we urge you to begin expelling Russian diplomats, to bring the U.S. diplomatic presence to parity. We believe such a step would be reasonable and reciprocal,” the senators wrote. 

The lawmakers further warned that the administration’s failure to take action “only invites more antagonistic Russian behavior.”

Biden administration officials have said its effort is to create a "stable and predictable" relationship with Russia, an effort to impose costs on Moscow over what the administration views as malign behavior over election interference, cyberattacks and human rights abuses. 

Yet the administration also views Moscow as a key partner on critical global issues and given its permanent status as a member of the United Nations Security Council. Such issues include nuclear nonproliferation, addressing climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing conflict in eastern Europe, central Asia and the Middle East.

Biden held his first face to face meeting with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense & National Security — Quick vote on defense bill blocked again Kremlin claims Ukraine may try to win back rebel-controlled regions by force Blinken threatens coordinated sanctions on Russia over Ukraine MORE in Geneva in June, and the two have spoken twice by phone.