Russia to seize U.S. properties in retaliation over sanctions

MOSCOW –– Russia’s Foreign Ministry demanded Friday that the United States cut the number of diplomatic staff it has in Russia and said it would seize two U.S. diplomatic properties, in a sharp response to a new sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress a day earlier.

The order — which affects the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok — would reduce the number of US diplomatic and technical staff to 455, the same number Russia has in the U.S., by September 1.

Russia is also suspending the use of a U.S. storage facility in Moscow and a country house, or dacha, outside of Moscow by August 1.

In the statement, the ministry says: “Any new unilateral actions by the U.S. authorities to reduce the number of our diplomats in the United States will be met with a mirror response.”

Thirty-five Russian diplomats were expelled from the United States in December under sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama in response to Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. The sanctions also included the closure of two Russian compounds, in Maryland and New York, used for intelligence purposes.

US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft has expressed his “strong disappointment and protest” over Moscow’s decision to expel the US diplomats, according to a statement to CNN from the US Embassy in Moscow.

“We have received the Russian government notification. Ambassador Tefft expressed his strong disappointment and protest. We have passed the notification back to Washington for review,” the statement said.

Trump still to sign or veto bill

Moscow’s latest move comes a day after the U.S. Senate passed sweeping legislation slapping new sanctions on Russia — over its alleged interference in the 2016 US election, annexation of Crimea and military operations in eastern Ukraine — and limiting President Donald Trump’s ability to remove them.

The bill, which also includes new sanctions on Iran and North Korea, was a product of lengthy negotiations between the House and Senate. In the end, it was passed by both chambers overwhelmingly.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters late Thursday that the President would review the sanctions bill. She did not say whether Trump would sign or veto the measure when it reaches his desk. The wide, bipartisan support for the law means Congress could override a presidential veto.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on a conference call Friday that Moscow had decided to retaliate before the bill went to Trump because “technically the form passed by the Senate is more important” and is “almost final.”

Asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin had authorized the move, Peskov said such measures are “impossible without the President’s permission.”

He added that possible amendments to the bill would not change the “essence” of the matter.

Immediately after the US ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recommended a tit-for-tat expulsion of 35 US diplomats and the shuttering of two American facilities in Russia. However, Putin at that point took a magnanimous tone, saying they could stay and that he would await the inauguration of Trump as US President before taking any further action.

Commentators said then that the unexpected move by Putin put Trump at a disadvantage even as it sidelined the Obama administration in its dying days.

Putin: Anti-Russia hysteria

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the new sanctions law “confirms the extreme aggressiveness of the United States in its foreign affairs.”

It accused the US of using the law to “create unfair competitive advantages for the US in the global economy” and said its actions breached international law. “Such blackmail, aimed at limiting the interaction of foreign partners with Russia, carries a threat to many countries and international businesses.”

Speaking in Finland on Thursday, Putin said he “very much regrets” the worsening of relations between Russia and the United States, blaming it on “anti-Russia hysteria” in domestic US politics.

He said a lot of Russian diplomats had been expelled “without any particular reason” and warned that Russia would have to respond at some point to what he called “boorish behavior” by the United States.

The new sanctions bill would add to a raft of coordinated sanctions already imposed in 2014 by the United States and the European Union over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its interference in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. The measures were largely aimed at hurting the Russian economy but also hit certain Russian individuals with travel bans and asset freezes.

The European Union extended its economic sanctions on Russia last month.

However, EU leaders warned the US on Wednesday that the bloc would act “within days” if it did not receive reassurances on the potential impact of the new US sanctions on European interests, amid fears they could hinder several key energy projects in Europe and further inflame internal EU divisions.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Friday that it was now up to Trump to decide how to proceed.

“We will continue to want to work together. We must not forget what is at stake: We want to overcome the conflict in eastern Ukraine. We agree that it needs political pressure on Moscow. This is the rationale and the standard for our European sanctions, no more, but not less,” he said.

But, Sigmar added, Germany “will in no way accept an extraterritorial application of these US sanctions against European companies … Policy sanctions are neither a suitable nor an adequate instrument for the promotion of national export interests and the domestic energy sector.”