Russia demands U.S. reduce diplomatic staff in new round of conflict over election hacking

 Russia announced Friday it would seize U.S. diplomatic properties and demand that the State Department reduce its staff in Russia, possibly by hundreds of people, in a retaliation that the Russian Foreign Ministry said was spurred by a financial sanctions bill now awaiting a signature from President Trump. 

“The passing of the new bill on sanctions clearly showed that relations with Russia have become a hostage of the internal political struggle in the U.S.,” the Russian Foreign Ministry wrote in a statement announcing Russia’s response. The announcement came the morning after U.S. Senate voted 98 to 2 in support of a new sanctions bill against Russia that would also limit Trump’s ability to lift anti-Russian sanctions already in place. The Trump administration has given mixed signals about whether the president will sign the bill, which also targets Iran and North Korea. Russia has promised additional retaliation against the new sanctions once they are signed into law, possibly by targeting U.S. commercial or trade interests tied to Russia.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok should reduce the number of their “diplomatic and technical employees” to 455, in apparent parity with the number of Russian diplomatic staff in the United States.The restrictions on personnel would take effect Sept. 1, the order said, likely after Trump makes a decision whether to sign the sanctions bill or veto it. A veto would likely lead to a congressional override. The Foreign Ministry also said it would seize, effective Aug. 1, a Moscow warehouse and dacha, or vacation house, complex used by the U.S. Embassy.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman could not immediately say how many people work for the embassy and consulates in Russia, nor what kind of cuts would be required to meet the Russian government’s demands.“Ambassador [John F.] Tefft expressed his strong disappointment and protest,” the embassy said in a statement, confirming receipt of the Russian order. “We have passed the notification back to Washington for review.”The Reuters news agency, citing an embassy source, said that about 1,100 people work at the U.S. Embassy, which is undergoing a considerable construction expansion, and the three consulates. About 300 U.S. citizens work in the Moscow embassy, the news agency reported.

The Russian Interfax news agency, a news clearinghouse for a number of Russian government agencies, reported that the State Department would have to reduce its staff by hundreds of employees. But no Russian or American official has publicly confirmed or denied the number of people who could be withdrawn.