MOSCOW: The Russian ambassador to the United States says Washington has ordered 24 Russian diplomats to leave the country by Sept 3, a move that comes shortly after the US said it laid off nearly 200 local staffers working for its diplomatic missions in Russia.

Both are the latest in a series of measures taken by both sides that have strained US-Russia relations.

In an interview with the National Interest magazine, ambassador Anatoly Antonov said that the embassy received a list of 24 Russian diplomats that are expected to leave the US by Sept 3.

Almost all of them will leave without replacements because Washington has abruptly tightened visa issuing procedures, Antonov said.

The Russian ambassador said the situation with the embassies in both countries hasn’t changed for the better since the June summit in Geneva between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden. It was after that summit that Antonov and his US counterpart John Sullivan returned to their posts after being recalled for consultations.

Russian diplomatic missions in the United States are still forced to work under unprecedented restrictions that not only remain in effect, but are stepped up, Antonov said.

The expulsions of diplomats are implemented under far-fetched pretexts now and then. Last December the State Department unilaterally established a three-year limit on the assignment period for Russian personnel in the United States that, as far as we know, is not applied to any other country, he said.

Antonov’s interview comes several days after the State Department announced laying off 182 locally employed staffers at the US facilities in Russia to comply with a ban on local hires the Kremlin imposed earlier this year in response to US expulsions of Russian diplomats and tit-for-tat closures of numerous diplomatic facilities in each country.

The expulsions occurred in the context of US sanctions imposed over Russian interference in the 2020 US presidential election, the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and crackdown on his supporters, as well as involvement in the SolarWind hack of US federal agencies. All are activities that Russia has denied.

After the announcement of the ban, the US Embassy in Russia suspended routine consular services and since May has been processing immigrant visas only in the case of life-or-death emergencies.

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2021

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