President Vladimir Putin's order to reduce US diplomatic staff in response to new sanctions is carefully calibrated to avoid directly affecting US investment in Russia or burning bridges with President Donald Trump.

The US flag flies outside the US consulate in St Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017.
The US flag flies outside the US consulate in St Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017.

The Kremlin might have ordered the United States to cut about 60 percent of its diplomatic staff in Russia but many of those let go will be Russian citizens. This is the toughest diplomatic demarche between the two countries since the Cold War, however, the fact that most of the staff members who will be asked to leave will be Russian will soften the blow.

The ultimatum issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin 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 US investment he needs, or burning his bridges with his US counterpart Donald Trump.

The Russian measures were announced after the US House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelmingly approved new sanctions on Russia.

Questioned by reporters on Monday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders had only a low-key response to Putin's demand that the embassy cut its local and American staff.

"Right now, we're reviewing our options, and when we have something to say on it, we'll let you know," Sanders said, repeating that Trump would sign the bill but refusing to say when.

Putin said on Sunday Russia was ordering the US to cut 755 diplomatic staff by September and seizing two properties. The sanctions arose in part from conclusions by US agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election to help Trump win it and to punish Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Those under the axe

Staff at the US embassy in Moscow were on Monday summoned to an all-hands meeting where Ambassador John F Tefft briefed employees on Russia's decision.

"The atmosphere was like a funeral," said one person present, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the media.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that the 755 could include Russian citizens, a group who comprise the vast majority of the United States' roughly 1,200 embassy and consulate staff in Russia.

The clarification from the Kremlin means that there will not necessarily be a mass expulsion of US diplomats because the numbers to be cut can be made up from Russian staff.

Reducing their numbers will affect embassy and consular operations, but that step does not carry the same diplomatic impact as expelling US diplomats from Russia.

Commenting on which diplomatic staff would have to go, Peskov told reporters on a conference call: "That's the choice of the United States."

He added: "(It's) diplomats and technical employees. That is, we're not talking purely about diplomats – obviously, there isn't that number of diplomats – but about people with non-diplomatic status, and people hired locally, and Russian citizens who work there."

The person who was present at the embassy meeting said Ambassador Tefft described the Russian decision as unfair.

The ambassador provided no details of where the staff cuts would fall, the witness said, but said Russian staff who were let go would have the right to apply for a special immigration visa to the US.

"People asked what Russian staff should do now, since a lot of Russian people working for the embassy are blacklisted and cannot find a job in Russian companies," said the person present.

"The ambassador said that by playing these diplomatic games, the Russian government, first of all, attacks its citizens, and the Russian government did not even know that the majority of people working at the embassy were Russians."

Putin bringing down the axe on US, not Trump

Forcing the US to scale back its diplomatic presence will reinforce Putin's reputation at home as a resolute defender of Russia's interests. That will help burnish his image before next year's presidential election, when he is expected to seek another term.

But the consequences of the Russian retaliation are not so stark that it would permanently alienate Trump, according to Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think tank.

By announcing his counter-measures before Trump signed the sanctions legislation into law, "Putin is sending a message that he is punishing Congress's America, and not Trump's America," Baunov wrote in a Facebook post.

Absent from the Russian retaliation were any measures that directly target US investment in Russia. US bluechip companies such as Ford, Citi and Boeing have projects in the country, bringing the kind of investment the Kremlin needs to lift a sluggish economic recovery.

US diplomatic properties

A staff member leaves the US consulate building in St. Petersburg, Russia. July 31, 2017. (Reuters)
A staff member leaves the US consulate building in St. Petersburg, Russia. July 31, 2017. (Reuters)

Moscow's response included word that it would seize two US diplomatic properties – a warehouse in southern Moscow and a country villa, or dacha, on the outskirts of the city that embassy staff use for weekend recreation.

On Monday, a Reuters journalist saw five vehicles with diplomatic licence plates, one of them a cargo truck, arrive at the recreation complex with the aim of retrieving embassy property. The convoy was refused access and was parked up outside.

The US embassy in Moscow accused Russian authorities of barring diplomatic staff from the property, after having earlier agreed to grant access until midday on Tuesday for them to retrieve belongings.

A Russian foreign ministry official, quoted by state news agency RIA, said the US embassy had sent in its trucks without first obtaining permits which, the official said, are required by law because the property is in a conservation area.

The property, in a picturesque spot on a bend in the Moskva river northwest of the capital, is leased by the US embassy for its staff to use for recreation.

An embassy spokeswoman said, "In line with the Russian government notification, the US Mission to Russia was supposed to have access to our dacha until noon on August 1.

We have not had access all day today or yesterday," she said.

"We refer you to the Russian government to explain why not."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies