The State Department has ordered Russia to close three of its U.S. facilities by Saturday after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 employees.
The Trump administration said the decision was made "in the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians," and gave the Kremlin until Sept. 2 to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C., and consular annex in New York City.
"With this action, both countries will remain with three consulates each," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. "While there will continue to be a disparity in the number of diplomatic and consular annexes, we have chosen to allow the Russian government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral of our relationship."
The decision is part of a sanctions tit-for-tat that dates back months. The Obama administration accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 election, after which the U.S. expelled 35 Russian officials and banned Russia from using two facilities in the U.S.
Putin's team declined to retaliate immediately, and after an overwhelming majority of lawmakers feared President Trump might ease up on Russia, they passed a far-reaching sanctions package targeting Russia.
The bill was designed to punish the election interference, but only in part. The sanctions were also tailored to rebuking Russia over the invasion of Ukraine and bombing U.S.-backed rebels and humanitarian groups while supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's team responded by ordering the State Department to reduce its staff in the country to no more than 455 employees.
"The latest events confirm that certain circles in the US are fixated on Russophobia and open confrontation with our country," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement announcing that retaliation. "The United States is using Russia's alleged interference in its domestic affairs as an absolutely contrived excuse for its persevering and crude campaigns against Russia."
Russia set a September 1 deadline for a U.S. response to the order. During that time, Lavrov's team accused the United States of shortcircuiting the visa process in order to maximize pain for the Russian people and thus stir up anger towards the Russian government.
U.S. officials denied having "cynical" motives, but emphasized that cuts were necessitated by Lavrov's order. State Department officials also pointed out that the staff reduction would cause job losses for Russian citizens as well.
"We've had to make tough choices in order to make meet the requirement, the number, that the Foreign Ministry gave us," John Tefft, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, said in a video message to the Russian people last week. "And I'm heartsick over this. We're trying hard to help them with other jobs, but this is the reality, the impact, of this decision by the Russian government."
Nauert argued that Russia should be content to call the spat a draw.
"The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation's desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides and move forward to achieve the stated down of both of our presidents: improved relations between our two countries and increased cooperation on areas of mutual concern," she said. "The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted."
The State Department also said it has "fully implemented" Putin's order for the U.S. to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia, even though it opposed that decision.
"We believe this action was unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries," Nauert said.