Russian President Vladimir Putin's mandate that the State Department cut staff in the country hurts his own people, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's team emphasized Thursday.
"We have many Russian citizens that work for the United States as locally employed staff," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday. "They will now be out of jobs."
Putin ordered a reduction in American personnel in retaliation for U.S. sanctions imposed successively by former President Barack Obama and then Congress in response to Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Tillerson has a Sept. 1 deadline to determine the American response to the order, but the intervening weeks have featured a debate about how the Russian people should view the decision.
"President Putin claims that he cares about the economy in Russia," Nauert said. "That's a funny way of showing it, caring about the economy by putting more people out of work. The Russian government knew the impact of these staff cuts and the impact that it would have."
That's the most direct volley from the State Department in a month of sniping, as Russian officials complained about the United States' expected plan for implementing the order almost immediately. Russian diplomats especially took aim at reports that the removal of hundreds of American personnel might cause delays for Russian citizens seeking visas to travel to the United States.
"The goal is obvious − to try to provoke the discontent of Russian citizens with the difficulties purportedly caused by the staff reduction of U.S. diplomatic and consular missions," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
Nauert denied such gamesmanship on Wednesday, even taking a shot at "bonkers" Russian media coverage of the issue.
"Let me make this clear: the United States is not retaliating against Russia in any way, shape, or form," she said. "We regrettably were forced to reduce the size of our mission in Russia ... because we've had to reduce the number of people who are adjudicating visas, we had to put a pause on visa applications for Russians who want to come to the United States right now."
Her Russian Foreign Ministry counterpart first leveled that accusation in early August, after a former U.S. ambassador to Russia predicted the staff reduction order would inconvenience Russian citizens.
"[T]he Americans started scaring Russian citizens with a more complicated and longer procedure of issuing visas," spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook. "The link between reducing the number of personnel and issuing visas cannot withstand criticism because nobody has expelled Americans or told them whom to send home and whom to leave here. Hence, if Washington decides to reduce the number of people dealing with visa issuing, that will be its own sovereign rather than forced decision."
However, Zakharova's reply ranged into other issues as well such as hints that the U.S. is targeting the consular staff in order to avoid withdrawing spies from the country and complaints about pro-democracy activists.
"They didn't have much to do to keep themselves busy in recent years other than build democracy in Russia," she wrote in the Aug. 2 post. "Something tells me that we have enough democracy builders in our country."
Nauert's statement Thursday touched obliquely on that theme.
"This was not our choice to reduce the number of U.S. staff and U.S. personnel serving in Russia," she said. "Not only does it affect our employees and people who are simply trying to do the work of promoting democracy and helping Americans etc overseas, etc., but it also hurts Russian citizens."
Putin's team has targeted U.S.-backed democracy activists as "a threat to the constitutional order of Russia, its defense capabilities and state security" in recent years. He blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for supporting Russian protests against elections in 2011 and 2012 that his party won, which were widely viewed as rigged.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained that State Department officials were involved in "conducting opinion polls" in the midst of those elections.
"They probably do not consider this to be meddling, because they are allowed to do anything, and that's in their blood," Lavrov said in August. "However, if this happens, we have our own laws, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which says explicitly and specifically what diplomats can do and what they cannot do. ... We will be guided by it and by our laws."