Russia has responded in kind to a barrage of new sanctions by the United States, saying it would expel 10 US diplomats and take other retaliatory moves in a tense showdown with Washington.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday also said Moscow will add eight US administration officials to its sanctions list and move to restrict and stop the activities of US non-government organisations from interfering in Russia’s politics.
On Thursday, the US had announced new sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats in retaliation for what Washington says is interference by the Kremlin in the US election, a massive cyberattack and other hostile activity.
“We will respond to this measure in a tit-for-tat manner. We will ask 10 US diplomats in Russia to leave the country,” Lavrov told reporters.
He said the Kremlin suggested that US ambassador John Sullivan follow the example of his Russian counterpart and head home for consultations.
Russia will also move to deny the US embassy the possibility of hiring personnel from Russia and third countries as support staff.
“That is because Russia says, in their missions in the US, they only hire Russians,” said Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, speaking from Moscow.
“For the US, that could affect everyone from drivers and cleaners to analysts and other individuals who may be working in US diplomatic missions in Russia. So that could potentially make life difficult for the Americans here.”
Smith also said that Lavrov threatened to go “a bit further” if the US escalates its own sanctions, by asking the US to remove the 150 Russian personnel working in the United Nations.
Russia-US ties slumped to a new post-Cold War low last month after US President Joe Biden said he thought Putin was a “killer” and Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations. The envoy has still not returned almost a month later.
While the US wields the power to cripple the Russian economy, Moscow lacks levers to respond in kind, although it potentially could hurt US interests in many other ways around the globe.
Lavrov noted that while Russia could take “painful measures” against US business interests in Russia, it would not immediately move to do that
Russia has denied interfering in the 2020 US presidential election and involvement in the SolarWinds hack of federal agencies – the activities punished by the latest US sanctions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned of an “inevitable” retaliation, charging that “Washington should realise that it will have to pay a price for the degradation of bilateral ties”.
The US on Thursday ordered 10 Russian diplomats expelled, targeted dozens of companies and people, and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money. Pundits had predicted that while Moscow would respond in kind to the expulsions, it would refrain from any other significant moves to avoid a further escalation.
Russia’s economic potential and its global reach are limited compared with the Soviet Union that competed with the US for international influence during the Cold War. Still, Russia’s nuclear arsenal and its leverage in many parts of the world make it a power that Washington needs to reckon with.
Aware of that, President Joe Biden called for de-escalating tensions and held the door open for cooperation with Russia in certain areas. Biden said he told Putin in a call on Tuesday that he chose not to impose tougher sanctions for now and proposed to meet in a third country in the summer.
Lavrov said the summit offer was being analysed.
Ramping up sanctions could eventually drive Russia into a corner and provoke even more reckless Kremlin action, such as a potential escalation in Ukraine, which has recently faced a surge in clashes with Russia-backed separatists in the east and a significant Russian troops buildup across the border.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in Paris on Friday to discuss the tensions with French President Emmanuel Macron. German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined them in a call later.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a top foreign policy expert who leads the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, predicted Putin would likely accept Biden’s invitation to join next week’s call on climate change but could drag his feet on accepting the summit offer.
“There is no way to make any deals,” Lukyanov told The Associated Press. “There is a mutual antipathy and a total lack of trust.”
He said that the only practical outcome of the summit could be an agreement to launch long and difficult talks on a replacement to the New START nuclear reduction agreement that Russia and the US extended in February for another five years.