US diplomats set to quit Russia as hopes for rapprochement fade

US diplomats set to quit Russia as hopes for rapprochement fade

MOSCOW
US diplomats set to quit Russia as hopes for rapprochement fade

A Moscow deadline for almost two-thirds of U.S. diplomatic staff to leave Russia expires on Sept. 1, an exodus that starkly demonstrates the souring relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

There were hopes of improved ties between Moscow and Washington after Trump's election to the U.S. presidency last year, when both leaders showered each other in praise.

But after the U.S. Congress approved new economic sanctions against Russia over Moscow's alleged meddling in the November election, Putin in July ordered the drastic embassy cuts in retaliation.

Putin said 755 diplomatic staff -- both Russian and American -- would have to stop work by Sept. 1, although the U.S. State Department has not confirmed the number.

The number of U.S. diplomatic staff will now be capped at 455, the same number that Russia has in the United States.

"We have waited long enough, hoping that the situation would perhaps change for the better," Putin said when he announced the cuts.

"But it seems that even if the situation is changing, it's not for any time soon."  

Trump only reluctantly signed off on the Congress-backed sanctions, describing them as "significantly flawed" and partially unconstitutional.

"Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low," he tweeted.

Washington last week announced it would suspend the issuing of all non-immigrant visas in Russia between Aug.23 and Sept. 1.

Visa operations at U.S. consulates will remain suspended indefinitely.     

Noting the current state of relations, Moscow has appointed a hawkish new ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, known as a hardliner and a tough negotiator with a deep suspicion of the United States.

On Aug. 30, Antonov said that Moscow and Washington should re-establish direct contacts between their military and foreign policy chiefs. 

“The time has come to resume joint meetings of Russia’s and the United States’ foreign and defence ministers in a ‘two plus two’ format,” Antonov said in an interview published on the Kommersant business daily’s web site.

Military contacts between Moscow and Washington were frozen in 2014 due to the Ukraine crisis.

Meanwhile, Putin’s spokesman on Aug. 30 confirmed that the Kremlin last year received an email from a lawyer working for then-presidential candidate Trump about building a Trump Tower skyscraper in Moscow.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that the Trump Organization’s chief counsel at the time, Michael Cohen, sent a message to a publicly available Kremlin press-service email address asking for support for a never-realised project to build a Trump Tower in the Moscow City business district.

“I confirm that among the general mass of emails, also came such an email from Mr Michael Cohen. That really happened,” Peskov said.   

Peskov said that he read the email, which was addressed to him personally, but took no further action and did not show it to Putin.

“This request said some Russian company together with certain people was pursuing the aim to create such a skyscraper in Moscow City, but their business was going nowhere and they asked for help with some recommendation or with promotion of this business.”

“Since we do not react to such business topics -- this is not our job -- we left this without response,” he said. “There were no repeat messages.”   

The message was not passed to Putin, since “we can’t discuss with President Putin the hundreds and thousands of various appeals that come from all different countries,” Peskov said.