Payback: Trump orders diplomatic response aimed at Putin

Will the US response to Russia’s diplomatic maneuver last month hit Vladimir Putin where it hurts? After Russia demanded a cutback of 755 positions in US diplomatic personnel, Donald Trump joked that Vladimir Putin had done him a favor by saving the State Department lots of money. Trump found another way to save money — cut off all non-immigrant visas for more than a week, and then severely restrict them afterward:

The United States Embassy in Moscow announced Monday it would temporarily stop issuing all non-immigrant visas in Russia and then severely curtail visa operations as it slashes its staff to comply with the latest salvo in Washington’s diplomatic standoff with Moscow.

Officially, Moscow’s demand that the U.S. Mission to Russia cut its staff from around 1,200 to 455 people was retaliation for the Obama administration’s decision to expel dozens of Russian diplomats last December. But the decision also came shortly after the House and Senate approved of the latest round of broad anti-Russian sanctions that have ushered in even cooler relations despite the apparent affection between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That means a significant reduction in tourism from Russia, but also puts a dent in business travel, too. While that will damage US businesses, it’s likely to damage the Russian economy even more. Considering the relative size of both economies, the US can absorb that easier than Russia. It’s likely to cause Putin some headaches at home among his supporters, many of whom do so because they have benefited economically under his rule.

Even when the Moscow embassy begins processing visa requests again after September 1, the US plans to make it difficult. The visas will get issued on “a greatly reduced scale,” and the embassy plans to cancel at least some previously scheduled interviews, forcing applicants to reschedule — if they can get in at all:

“Capacity for interviews in the future will be greatly reduced because we have had to greatly reduce our staffing levels to comply with the Russian government’s requirement,” the embassy told applicants in a note on its web site.

Furthermore, non-immigrant visas will no longer get processed anywhere else but Moscow. Russia has eleven time zones, which is why the US took requests from its consulates in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok before now. Anyone wishing to travel to the US will have to come to Moscow to apply for the visa, and then wait for the embassy to get back to them with an interview appointment.

Will Russia follow suit? Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said no, although they plan to study the issue:

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a news conference the decision to cut visa operations aims to make Russians feel discontent with their own government.

Asked about a possible Russian reaction, Lavrov said Russia will “study” the embassy’s announcement, adding that unlike the U.S. government Russia “is not going to take it out on U.S. citizens.”

Why not? For the same reason Trump and his team chose this tactic — Russians need access to the US economy more than the US needs access to Russia’s. They need Americans to keep traveling to Russia. Lavrov acknowledged the strategic play involved here, and that gives a hint about the likelihood of its success.

If Putin really wanted to help Trump get elected, he sure isn’t getting his money’s worth out of the deal. And neither are Putin’s cronies.


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