Two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin formally expelled 755 American diplomats and announced plans to seize two compounds used by US State Department employees, US officials have started “removing furniture and equipment from the compounds”, according to Reuters.
The early start suggests that the US is making every effort to comply with Putin’s demand that the US reduce its 1,200 diplomatic personnel by 60% before Sept. 1, made in retaliation to a bill authorizing fresh sanctions against Russia that President Donald Trump is expected to sign. Late last year, the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized two Russian diplomatic compounds near Washington, D.C. Putin refrained from responding at the time.
According to Reuters, the movers at the US compounds arrived at around 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and were seen packing furniture, including beds and lamps, into three white vans over the course of three hours.
Ironically, the US is allowed to choose who stays and who leaves. Because of this, it’s expected that many of those who will be let go will be Russian citizens, Reuters noted. Putin’s decision has severely impacted morale among State Department employees, many of whom have given up on working and are instead updating their resumes and looking for new jobs online, Reuters reports.
“One person at the embassy, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media, said staff there were feeling depressed and despondent as they came to terms with the Kremlin’s order.
‘The mood in the office is very pessimistic,’ the person said. ‘Everyone is just loitering, or sitting on job websites looking for a new job.’”
Reuters also noted that Putin’s ultimatum was carefully calibrated to preserve his relationship with Trump after the two world leaders purportedly hit it off over the course of several meetings at a G-20 summit in Hamburg last month.
“The ultimatum issued by the Russian leader is a display to voters at home that he is prepared to stand up to Washington – but is also carefully calibrated to avoid directly affecting the U.S. investment he needs, or burning his bridges with Trump.”
Congress’s sanctions bill risks derailing already tense US-Russia relations, despite Trump’s expressed desire to work more closely with Russia on areas of mutual benefit like containing ISIS in Syria. Vetoing the bill would be seen as a waste of political capital by Trump, who is fighting off allegations that his campaign colluded with the Russian government to tilt the election in his favor, because Congress, which passed the bill with overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate, would likely be able to override it with a 2/3rds majority.
Despite Trump’s calls for closer ties, the Pentagon may be already contemplating its next steps in the escalating conflict with Russia, which as the WSJ reported will likely involve supplying Ukraine with antitank missiles and other weaponry – a red line for the Kremlin not even the Obama administration dared to cross.
By escalating tensions with Russia, the US also risks straining its relationship with Europe. On Monday, the Germany economy minister said that new penalties against Moscow proposed by US lawmakers violate international law, and that officials in Brussels should consider countermeasures.
Speaking to Funke Mediengruppe newspaper, Brigitte Zypries said that “we consider this as being against international law, plain and simple.” She added that “of course we don’t want a trade war. But it is important the European Commission now looks into countermeasures.”
She also said that “the Americans can not punish German companies because they operate economically in another country.” Retaliatory measures may include limiting US jurisdiction over EU companies, according to a memo leaked to the Financial Times and Politico last month. Some European government officials object to language in the sanctions bill that could limit interactions between US and Russian energy firms related to the construction of pipelines, which European officials believes could damage their trade relationship with Russia.