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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

US orders Russia to close consulate but seeks 'to improve relations'

The decision was communicated to Russia in a phone call between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his counterpart Sergey Lavrov

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed the decision in a phone call to his Russian counterpart. Arron P Bernstein / Reuters
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed the decision in a phone call to his Russian counterpart. Arron P Bernstein / Reuters

In a tit for tat move after Russia’s expulsion of 755 US staffers, the Trump administration ordered Moscow to close its oldest and most established consulate in San Francisco and two annexes in Washington and New York.

Giving Russia a 48-hour window to fulfill the order, the U.S. State Department announced on Thursday: “In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring the Russian Government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C., and a consular annex in New York City."

The decision, according to a senior U.S. official, was communicated to Russia in a phone call on Monday from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to his counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

“The call was very professional, and they agreed to work to improve the relations” said the US official.

In addition, John Heffern - acting Assistant for European affairs at the State Department - met with Russia’s Deputy Chief of Mission Dmitry Zhirnov and relayed the decision.

The U.S. retaliatory move waited until American diplomats and staffers left Russia this week, following Vladimir Putin’s order on July 30 to shrink the presence at US embassy by 755 staffers.

“The US has fully implemented the decision by the Government of the Russian Federation to reduce the size of our mission in Russia,” the US statement said.

While many of 755 US staffers had to expelled and return to the State Department, Washington is not asking to expel Russian staffers at the consulate and the annexes that were closed.

“We are not expelling Russian diplomats at this time, they can be reassigned”, the US official said.

If anything Washington is hoping the announcement would mark the end of the cycle of retaliatory moves between the Russia and the United States. Mr Tillerson and Mr Lavrov will likely meet in New York in September according to the State Department.

“Our hope with this move in direction of parity, is that we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides... the goal to find a way to get to better relations,” said the US official.

Donald Trump warned of sharp decline in US-Russia relations. “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare! [Healthcare]" he tweeted four weeks ago.

The tweet followed new U.S. legislation that increases sanctions on Russia overwhelmingly approved by the lawmakers and signed by the President.