Chef at American Embassy in Moscow forced out amid US, Russia tensions

The Russian government is serving up a diplomatic food fight with the U.S. and hitting a surprising target: the stomachs of its top diplomats. 

Michelle Michalenko, the private chef for the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, wrote on Facebook that after 16 years in Russia, her visa was canceled and she was being forced out of the country. 

“Today, I wanted to share that due to the escalation in tensions, the Russian government put me on a list, with other U.S. Embassy Moscow diplomats and contractors, of people required to leave the country. Our visas were canceled,” Michalenko wrote on Facebook on Sunday.  

“Saying good-bye to my home of 16 years shattered me. Leaving my work kitchen for the last time was the hardest thing I’ve done.” 

The move appears related to a decision by the Russian government in December to force the departure by Jan. 31 of U.S. Embassy Moscow staff that had been in the country for more than three years — part of a wider conflict between Washington and Moscow on diplomatic staffing. 

The escalating diplomatic row comes as the U.S. is rallying allies to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching an invasion against Ukraine. Moscow has positioned more than 100,000 troops on its border with the former Soviet state.

Biden administration officials have raised serious warnings that an invasion could be imminent but have stressed their plan to use diplomacy to resolve the tensions with Moscow.

A State Department spokesperson, when asked about Michalenko’s dismissal, said they could not comment on a specific individual’s case due to privacy considerations, but raised concerns about the ability of the U.S. Embassy Moscow to effectively carry out diplomacy with the Kremlin amid the staffing shortages.  

“As we have said, diplomacy is the only responsible way to resolve our differences with Russia. We need to have open channels of communication particularly during times of heightened tension. A functioning Embassy is critical to diplomacy and why we continue the hard work of addressing this issue,” the spokesperson said. 

“We continue to urge the Russian government to engage productively and in good faith on Mission staffing. We are ready to meet with the Russians to discuss a mutually acceptable way forward. We note that Russia’s Mission to the United States continues to be considerably more staffed than the U.S. Mission in Russia.”    

Michalenko has been open and complimentary about her time serving at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, calling it her “dream job” during a 2015 video interview with a Russian cultural news magazine, describing her favorite Russian foods and tours throughout the country.

She has posted photos on her business webpage of her alongside top American officials, including President Biden, former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  

Russia has forced a dramatic reduction in staffing at American missions in the country and forced closed in December 2020 the U.S. consulates in the Russian cities of Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported

In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the U.S. would dismiss 200 locally employed staff ahead of an August deadline imposed by the Kremlin barring Russians from working for American missions in the country.  

That move was viewed as retaliation against President Biden’s decision in April to outline expulsion of at least 10 Russian diplomats and impose sanctions on dozens of individuals and companies as punishment for Russian interference in the 2020 election and the SolarWinds software hack, a massive cyber operation that is believed to have compromised nine government agencies and, according to an investigation carried out by SolarWinds, nearly 100 of its customers.

In October, a group of bipartisan senators with oversight of foreign affairs and intelligence urged Biden to address Russia’s forced limits on diplomatic staffing in Moscow by taking “responsible, proportional, and immediate actions in response to the provocations undertaken by the Russian Government.” 

Updated 3:15 p.m.

Tags Antony Blinken Joe Biden Vladimir Putin

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