By Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department is getting to the point of being able to maintain only a “caretaker presence” in Russia in the face of a deep downturn in diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow, a senior department official said on Wednesday.
Russia and the United States withdrew their ambassadors in April after the incoming Biden administration issued sanctions and expelled 10 Russian diplomats over actions including the SolarWinds cyber attack and election interference.
Those ambassadors returned in June, but the staff at the embassy in Moscow – the last operational U.S. mission in the country after consulates in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg were shuttered – has shrunk to 120 from about 1,200 in early 2017, the State Department official told reporters at a briefing.
Staff were struggling to issue visas, putting a drag on business ties between the two countries, and were unable to repair elevators or entrance gates, creating safety concerns, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We’re going to confront the situation… sometime next year where it’s just difficult for us to continue with anything other than a caretaker presence at the embassy,” the official said.
Russia and the United States continue to engage in talks over nuclear threat reduction and climate change, but relations remain strained by issues like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe and President Vladimir Putin’s suppression of his domestic opponents.
The United States was forced to lay off nearly 200 locally employed staff after Russia banned the embassy from employing non-Americans, and a visa-for-visa arrangement has prevented Washington from bringing U.S. citizens into Russia.
Russia has just over 400 diplomats in the United States, including its delegation to the United Nations in New York, the State Department official said.
U.S. officials continue to negotiate with their Russian counterparts to stabilize the “downward spiral” in relations, the official added.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)