U.S. officials have ordered Russia to close three diplomatic buildings in the United States, part of the ongoing quarrel between the two countries over U.S. sanctions.
The action follows Russia's demand earlier this month that the U.S. reduce the number of personnel at its diplomatic missions in the country.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to tell him that the United States has fully implemented the decision by the Russian government to reduce the size of the U.S. mission in the country.
In a statement, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the Russian decision “unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”
Nauert continued, “In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring the Russian government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C. and consular annex in New York City.”
She said the closures would need to be completed by September 2.
Nauert stressed that the U.S. “has chosen to allow the Russian government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship.” A senior administration official stressed that Tillerson and Lavrov both still want to improve U.S.-Russian relations, and described their phone call as professional.
Russia Today reported that Lavrov responded to the closures by “expressing regret” over the escalation of tensions. He said that Moscow would study the new measures carefully and inform Washington of its reaction.
The diplomatic retaliations stem from U.S. sanctions of Russia over its annexation of Crimea, as well as Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Last month, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill preventing President Donald Trump from easing sanctions on Russia without congressional approval. After Trump signed the bill, Russian authorities denounced it as "trade war."
A senior U.S. administration official told reporters the Russian Consulate General in San Francisco is the oldest Russian consulate in the United States. She said the two annexes ordered closed in Washington and New York were primarily trade missions. She said no Russian diplomats are being expelled – the diplomats in those three building may be reassigned to other Russian consulates in the U.S.
The senior official said the U.S. has complied with the Russian order to reduce its presence in Russia down to 455 staff members. The official stressed that with this new U.S. order to close three buildings, the Russian would still have more consulates and annexes in the United States than the U.S. has in Russia.
The U.S. president's response to the tensions has also sparked controversy. When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the U.S. diplomats were being expelled, Trump responded by saying, “I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down the payroll.”
White House officials later told reporters the president was being sarcastic.