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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Russia hits back over new US sanctions

Washington ordered to cut diplomatic staff after senate passes new measures to punish Russia

Russian president Vladimir Putin attends a joint press conference with Finland's president in Savonlinna, Eastern Finland, on July 27, 2017. Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva / AFP
Russian president Vladimir Putin attends a joint press conference with Finland's president in Savonlinna, Eastern Finland, on July 27, 2017. Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva / AFP

Russia on Friday responded to new sanctions proposed by US legislators by ordering Washington to reduce its diplomatic staff.

The United States was told cut the number of diplomats and staff in Russia to 455 and was also barred from using a Moscow summer house and storage facility.

The Russian foreign ministry said this was a response to the passing of a new bill on sanctions by the senate late on Thursday. The legislation is aimed at punishing Moscow for interfering in the 2016 presidential election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where the Kremlin has backed president Bashar Al Assad. US president Donald Trump will now have to decide whether to accept or veto the measures.

The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov later told US counterpart Rex Tillerson that Moscow remained ready to work with Washington.

"Lavrov confirmed that our country is still ready to normalise bilateral relations with the US and to cooperate on the most important international issues," Russia's foreign ministry said after a phone call between the two top diplomats.

"However this is possible only on the basis of equality, mutual respect and a balancing interests," the ministry said.

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday slammed what he called "anti-Russian hysteria" in Washington and said Russia could not "endlessly tolerate this kind of insolence".

Moscow complained that the "new sanctions bill showed with all clarity that relations with Russia have fallen hostage to the domestic political struggle in the US".

It warned that it "reserves the right to carry out other measures that could affect the interests of the US" while acting in a reciprocal fashion.

Relations between Russia and the United States dropped to a post-Cold War low following Russia's annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Reports of Russian meddling in last year's presidential election have put a damper on hopes for better ties that the Kremlin pinned on Mr Trump's presidency.

The new package of sanctions aims to hit Mr Putin and his inner circle by targeting alleged corrupt officials, human rights abusers and crucial sectors of the Russian economy, including weapons sales and energy exports.

The bill underwent revisions to address concerns voiced by American oil and natural gas companies that sanctions specific to Russia's energy sector could backfire on them to Moscow's benefit. Legislators said they also made adjustments so the sanctions on Russia's energy sector did not affect the ability of US allies in Europe to get access to oil and gas resources outside of Russia.

Russia has repeatedly expressed anger at Washington barring its diplomats access to two compounds in the US in December last year under former president Barack Obama, in response to suspected Russian meddling in the US election.

Mr Obama at the same time expelled 35 Russian diplomats for spying.

Mr Putin had held off from retaliating, saying he would wait to see how Mr Trump reacted after he came into the White House.

The Russian and US presidents discussed the diplomatic spat at their first meeting at the G20 in Hamburg this month.

Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov had said after subsequent talks in Washington that the matter was "almost" resolved.

But on Friday the Russian foreign ministry criticised America's "extreme aggressiveness" in international affairs and said Washington was using the "absolutely far-fetched pretext of Russia's interference in its internal affairs" to carry out "flagrantly anti-Russian actions".

"We propose to the US side to bring the number of diplomatic and technical staff" working in Russia "in exact accordance" with the number of Russian diplomats and support staff in the United States by September 1, the ministry said.

It said that this would reduce the number of US diplomats and staff to 455.

The ministry also said it would bar the use of a summer house and storage facilities in Moscow by the US embassy from August 1.

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