Trump strikes back by cutting back on Russian visas

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In a tit-for-tat move, the Trump administration announced that it’s slashing visa services in Russia after the Kremlin responded to new U.S. sanctions by capping the number of U.S. diplomats in their country.

The United States embassy said on its website that it would suspend all non-immigrant visa operations across Russia on Aug. 23 and restart them on Sep. 1 “on a greatly reduced scale.”

Non-immigrant visas will only be issued in Moscow, while visas services at consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok “are suspended until further notice.”  The move, will hit business travelers, tourists and students the hardest.  It is also likely to further sour already battered U.S.-Russia relations.

This new step means Russian citizens wanting to visit the United States for tourism will no longer be able to apply via U.S. consulates outside Moscow and will have to travel to the Russian capital instead.

Nearly a quarter of a million Russian tourists visited the U.S. last year, according to Russian tourism officials.

The vast majority of the more than 1,000 employees at the various US diplomatic missions in Russia, including the embassy in Moscow and the three consulates are local employees.

The decision is “due to the Russian government-imposed cap on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia,” the embassy said in its statement. President Vladimir Putin’s demand for the U.S. to cut 755 staff from its embassy and consulates by Sep. 1 “Russia’s decision to reduce the United States’ diplomatic presence here calls into question Russia’s seriousness about pursuing better relations,” it said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. was trying to provoke Russians into expressing dissatisfaction with the Russian government, according to Russian news agencies.

“This logic is well known. It’s the logic of those who organized color revolutions,” Lavrov said at a news conference, referring to pro-Western uprisings in former Soviet republics in the 2000’s that Russia claims were orchestrated by the United States.

Russia capped the number of U.S. diplomats in Russia in retaliation for new sanctions imposed by Congress for Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election last year.

Russia and the U.S. are currently at odds over several other global issues, including conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. The U.S. imposed a series of sanctions on Russian officials, businessmen and companies after Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014 and intervened with its military in eastern Ukraine.

Kurt Volker, the State Department’s envoy for the Ukraine conflict, will meet on Monday with his Kremlin counterpart in Minsk, Belarus, in an effort to find out whether Moscow is prepared to seek a resolution, according to a U.S. official. Two peace deals have largely frozen the front lines in the three-year conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists, but fighting often flares at several hot spots, and almost no progress has been made to reintegrate the territories under Kiev’s control.

The Kremlin’s envoy, Vladislav Surkov, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top aide on Ukraine. He organized and managed the separatists, according to former separatist leaders and Western and Ukrainian diplomats. Russia portrays the conflict in Ukraine as a civil war and plays down its influence among separatists.

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