Employees take down the U.S. flag on the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg, Russia March 31, 2018.
Employees take down the U.S. flag on the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg, Russia March 31, 2018.

WASHINGTON - Last week's tit-for-tat closure of U.S. and Russian consulates over the death of a former spy in Britain was intended to punish officials and diplomats, but ordinary citizens of both countries are already feeling the impact.

The fallout is most severe for Russian citizens and travel-minded Americans in the U.S. Northwest, who would normally seek visas, passport renewals and other documents at the Russian consulate in Seattle, which shut down Friday.

With Russia's San Francisco consulate having already been closed in September, that leaves residents of the Seattle area with a minimum four-and-a-half-hour flight to the nearest functioning Russian consulate in Houston, Texas, some 3,000 kilometers (1,860) miles) away.

Gayane Yaffa, head of Russian visa services in Seattle, said her phone rang non-stop all week after the March 26 White House announcement.

"People started calling at 7 a.m. asking what to do now," said Yaffa. "Many had already planned their trips and purchased tickets. People kept asking what to do. It was impossible to reach the consulate in Seattle, and those who succeeded were told there was no point in coming because the employees only gave out the ready passports with visas in them."

Russia responded later last week by ordering the United States to close its consulate in St. Petersburg, the second busiest one in the country. But the impact of that closing will be less severe, since the U.S. consulate in Moscow — less than 700 kilometers (435 miles) to the southeast — will continue to operate.

A boy looks through a bus window alleged to be car
A boy looks through a bus window alleged to be carrying Russian diplomats and their family members who were ordered to leave the US, as they depart from Vnukovo 2 government airport, outside Moscow, Russia, April 1, 2018.

Russian national Yuri Dukhovny, a Los Angeles resident, says he believes the exchange of closings is going to have a disproportionate impact on Russians.

“All conflicts between states first affect average citizens,” he said. “Many Russians need to renew passports and deal with paperwork. Not having any Russian consulates on the West Coast affects them greatly. Everything will now take forever.”

Script writer Jeremy Iverson, an American who says he moved to Russia a year ago to seek adventure, echoed that view, saying it is average Russians who ultimately will pay the price for the diplomatic gamesmanship.

“The closure of the (St. Petersburg) consulate isn’t actually going to impact American citizens  they’ll still have to go through the ILS system to mail in your documents needed for obtaining a visa,” he said. “It will impact Russian citizens who need consular services, those who are here and are trying to get passports changed, to get documentation  things like that. It's going to be an issue for them.”

A metal fence surrounds the residence of Russia's
A metal fence surrounds the residence of Russia's consul general, March 26, 2018, in Seattle.

Moscow responded to the U.S. order to close the Seattle consulate with a Twitter poll asking Russian citizens which U.S. consulate should be closed in response.

What seemed like a sarcastic joke, said Russian political analyst Alexandr Konfisakhor, was actually a political tactic that appeared to shift responsibility for the decision to the will of the Russian people. Konfisakhor suggested it was a way for the Russian government to respond to the U.S. but not overdo it.

“You can get to Moscow from St. Petersburg in just a couple of hours. It means that everyone who needs a visa can easily get one. Closing a consulate in Yekaterinburg or Vladivostok would have been a much more serious inconvenience," he said.

This story originated from VOA's Russian Service