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Diplomatic tension escalates between U.S. and Russia

MOSCOW -- Russian officials vowed Friday to respond to a U.S. order to shut the Russian Consulate in San Francisco and offices in Washington and New York, but also indicated that Moscow was not inclined to raise the stakes in the diplomatic tit-for-tat between the two countries. 

The Trump administration said the order issued Thursday was in retaliation for the Kremlin's "unwarranted and detrimental" demand last month that the U.S. substantially reduce the size of its diplomatic staff in Russia.

"The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. Still, Nauert said Washington hoped both countries could now move toward "improved relations" and "increased cooperation."

The U.S. gave Russia 48 hours to comply with the order for the San Francisco consulate and the East Coast offices. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Moscow would reply with firmness, but needs 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," Lavrov said in a televised meeting with students at Russia's top diplomacy school.

Other top Russian officials also urged caution.

President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, told Russian news agencies later Friday that the Kremlin "regrets" the latest U.S. move and needs to "think carefully about how we could respond."

Ushakov also left room for Russia to refrain from retaliation.

"On the other hand, one does not want to go into a frenzy because someone has to be reasonable and stop," he said.

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

New sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea 01:32

American officials argued that Russia had no cause for retribution now, noting that Moscow's ordering of U.S. 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.

Several hours after the U.S. announcement, new Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov arrived in Washington to start his posting.

At the airport, Antonov cited a maxim of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin as he urged caution and professionalism.

"We don't need hysterical impulses," Russian news agencies quoted Antonov as saying.

In assessing Washington's directive, Russian officials and lawmakers said Friday that U.S. President Donald Trump might be getting tough on Russia against his will.

The new package of sanctions against Russia that Congress adopted last month not only hits Russia, but is designed to "tie Trump's hands, not let him use his constitutional powers to the full to make foreign policy," Lavrov said.

Nationalist party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who publicly cheered Trump's election, called the flurry of U.S. sanctions against Russia "an illness that will go away."

"It's an illness because (they) are not leaving President Trump alone to run the country and keep coming up with tricks to draw a wedge between America and Russia," Zhirinovsky said in a video statement that did specify who might be creating such obstacles for Trump.

By Saturday, the Russians must close their consulate in San Francisco and an official residence there. Though Russia can keep its New York consulate and Washington embassy, trade missions housed in satellite offices in both of those cities must shut down, a senior Trump administration official said. The official briefed reporters on a conference call on condition of anonymity. 

President Trump signs sanctions against Russia 06:45

American counterintelligence 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 U.S. 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, closed two Russian recreational compounds. Russian President Vladimir Putin withheld from retaliating. The next month, Trump took office after campaigning on promises to improve U.S.-Russia ties.

But earlier this month, 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 U.S. to cut its embassy and consulate staff down to 455 personnel, from a level hundreds higher.

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

The reductions are having consequences for Russia. The U.S. last month temporarily suspended non-immigrant visa processing for Russians seeking to visit the United States and resumed it on Friday at a "much-reduced rate." The U.S. will process visas only at the embassy in Moscow, meaning Russians can no longer apply at U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok.

Even before the cuts at the U.S. 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 United States 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 canceled," Sianule said outside the U.S. Embassy Friday morning.

Despite the exchange of penalties, there have been narrow signs of U.S.-Russian cooperation that have transcended the worsening ties. In July, Trump and Putin signed off on a deal with Jordan for a cease-fire in southwest Syria. The U.S. says the truce has largely held. 

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