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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Russia lashes out after Trump orders diplomatic posts closed

As Russian diplomats rushed to meet the Saturday deadline, black smoke was seen billowing out of the chimney at the San Francisco consulate, one of three Russian facilities being forcibly closed

Workers carry boxes out of the Russian consulate in San Francisco as black smoke was seen pouring from a chimney at the stately building in a historic area of the city on Friday. Garance Burke / The Associated Press
Workers carry boxes out of the Russian consulate in San Francisco as black smoke was seen pouring from a chimney at the stately building in a historic area of the city on Friday. Garance Burke / The Associated Press

Russia accused the US on Friday of a "gross violation of international law" after the Trump administration gave Moscow two days to shutter diplomatic outposts in San Francisco and other American cities.

As Russian diplomats rushed to meet the Saturday deadline, black smoke was seen billowing out of the chimney at the San Francisco consulate, one of three Russian facilities being forcibly closed. Firefighters, who were turned away by Russian officials when they responded to the scene, said the Russians were burning something in their fireplace.

In Moscow, the Russian government claimed that US officials were planning to search both the consulate and apartments used by their diplomats on Saturday, though there were no indications from the US suggesting that was the case. The State Department said merely that it planned to "secure and maintain" the properties and that Russia would not be allowed to use them for "diplomatic, consular, or residential purposes" any longer.

Still, the Kremlin appeared to be wrestling with how forcefully to react to the US order, the latest in a series of escalating retaliatory measures between the former Cold War foes. President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Russia needs to "think carefully about how we could respond" to one of the thorniest diplomatic confrontations between Washington and Moscow in decades.

"One does not want to go into a frenzy, because someone has to be reasonable and stop," Mr Ushakov said.

The diplomatic machinations came the day after the Trump administration ordered three Russian facilities to close: the San Francisco consulate and trade missions in New York and Washington. The Russian embassy in Washington is not affected, nor are three other Russian consulates in the US, including in New York.

The Trump administration said the order was retaliation for the Kremlin's "unwarranted and detrimental" demand last month that the US substantially reduce the size of its diplomatic staff in Russia. But Russia, for its part, justified its call for cuts to US embassy and consular personnel as a reaction to new sanctions the US Congress approved in July.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow would reply with firmness to the forced closure of the diplomatic posts, but needed time to study Washington's directive and to decide on a response.

"We will have a tough response to the things that come totally out of the blue to hurt us and are driven solely by the desire to spoil our relations with the United States," Mr Lavrov said in a televised meeting with students at Russia's top diplomacy school.

Despite Russia's claim the US is violating international law, the Trump administration has defended the closures by citing the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The US has said the 1960s-era pact gives host countries the right to consent to foreign countries establishing consular posts — or not.

The closures on both US coasts marked perhaps the most drastic diplomatic measure by the US against Russia since 1986, near the end of the Cold War, when the nuclear-armed powers expelled dozens of each other's diplomats.

Read more: US orders Russia to close consulate but seeks 'to improve relations'

American officials argued that Russia had no cause for retribution now, noting that Moscow's ordering of US diplomatic cuts last month was premised on bringing the two countries' diplomatic presences into "parity".

Both countries now maintain three consulates in each other's territory and ostensibly similar numbers of diplomats. Exact numbers are difficult to independently verify.

American counter-intelligence officials have long kept a watchful eye on Russia's outpost in San Francisco, concerned that people posted to the consulate as diplomats were engaged in espionage. The US late last year kicked out several Russians posted there, calling it a response to election interference.

The forced closures are the latest in an intensifying exchange of diplomatic broadsides.

In December, president Barack Obama kicked out dozens of Russian officials and closed two Russian recreational compounds. Russian president Vladimir Putin withheld from retaliating. The next month, Donald Trump took office after campaigning on promises to improve US-Russia ties.

But earlier this month, Mr Trump begrudgingly signed into law stepped-up sanctions on Russia that Congress pushed to prevent him from easing up on Moscow. The Kremlin retaliated by telling the US to cut its embassy and consulate staff down to 455 personnel, from a level hundreds higher.

The US never confirmed how many diplomatic staff it had in the country at the time. As of Thursday, the US has complied with the order to reduce staff to 455, officials said.

The reductions are having consequences for Russia. The US last month temporarily suspended non-immigrant visa processing for Russians seeking to visit the US and resumed it Friday at a "much-reduced rate".

The US had also said it would stop conducting visa interviews at its Russian consulates, leaving the embassy in Moscow as the only option. But a State Department cable sent to overseas US diplomatic posts and obtained by The Associated Press on Friday said the US was considering whether, with its reduced footprint, it might be able to resume limited interviews at the three consulates, in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok.

Even before the cuts at the US mission were announced, typical waiting time for visa applicants in Russia to be interviewed was longer than a month.

Nadezhda Sianule planned to attend her daughter's wedding in the US in mid-September and got an appointment in July to be interviewed on Thursday. Now these plans are in disarray.

"I came yesterday and they said that I'm not on the list. They said that the old lists have been cancelled," Ms Sianule said on Friday morning outside the US embassy.

Despite the exchange of reprisals, there have been narrow signs of US-Russian co-operation that have transcended the worsening ties. In July, Mr Trump and Mr Putin signed off on a deal with Jordan for a ceasefire in southwest Syria. The US says the truce has largely held.