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Why Moscow’s retaliation for U.S. sanctions is a major escalation

July 28, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Russia announced that the U.S. would need to drastically reduce the number of officials working in the country, and barred the U.S. from using two properties there. The announcement was retaliation for actions taken by the U.S., including the seizure of two Russian-owned compounds and a Senate-approved bill that includes new sanctions. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Nick Schifrin.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The government of Russia announced today that the U.S. would need to drastically reduce the number of its officials working in Russia, and could no longer use two properties there.

Hari Sreenivasan is in New York with more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The move follows two American actions, both related to the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Last December, the Obama administration seized two Russian-owned compounds in the U.S., and expelled 35 Russian diplomats who the U.S. claimed were intelligence operatives.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that included new sanctions on Russia for its election hacking. That bill now awaits the president’s signature or veto.

With me now is special correspondent Nick Schifrin.

Nick, in addition to what Judy just told us, what are the Russians demanding?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Yes.

By September the 1st, the U.S. has to reduce its staff inside of Russia to 455. That’s at the embassy in Moscow and three consulates around the country. And by Monday, they will lose access to a storage facility inside Moscow, as well as a country house that they generally use right outside of Moscow. And Russia vows to punish them even more if the U.S. responds.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is the State Department concerned? Do we have lots more people there?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Yes, this is a major escalation because of the numbers of people who are there.

Former U.S. officials tell me that there are anywhere from 1,100 to 1,500 staff in Russia, so to bring that down to 455 could mean expelling hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of U.S. staff.

That is on a magnitude much higher than the expelling of 35 Russians believed to be intelligence officers by President Obama last year. And so, clearly, today’s announcement is designed not just to affect U.S. ability to conduct intelligence in Russia, but the U.S. ability entirely, the U.S. government’s entire ability to conduct its operations in Russia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, what are the Russians that you spoke to today telling you? Is this significant enough? Is this a turning point?

NICK SCHIFRIN: It could be a turning point, because it does seem to signify that President Vladimir Putin has given up his hope that the relationship could get better.

You know, the U.S. and Russia have high-level talks going on right now, and Russia certainly had been expecting some concessions out of that, but one Russian official told me today — quote — “We came to a point where there was no that hope those talks could yield any results.”

And that lack of hope really pervades the entire Russian point of view right now. They hoped, perhaps expected, President Trump to improve the relationship. And other than some pro-Russian rhetoric, not much has changed.

There are still country homes not returned to Russia. There are still sanctions, and, as you mentioned, that congressional bill. So, Russians have been delayed this response for seven months, hoping the relationship would get better. And it seems like their patience has run out.

And, Hari, the U.S. would say, look, it was Russia that brought us to this point, both the election hacking and its actions in Ukraine. Russia says, we didn’t hack anything. And the statement today calls what the U.S. is doing a witch-hunt — quote — “The U.S. is using Russia’s alleged interference in its domestic affairs as an absolutely contrived excuse for its persevering and crude campaigns against Russia.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, put this in perspective. You just did a long series on Russia. Where is the relationship between the two countries in the longer arc?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Even during the Cold War, there was no occasion when either side kicked out hundreds of the other person’s staff.

A lot of Russia watchers told me today that they think it’s about the early ’80s. It’s been that long since this relationship was that bad. That’s, of course, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Now, what brought the relationship better in the ’80s was a change eventually in Soviet leadership.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And President Putin is not going anywhere.

And so the question is, how does the U.S. respond, not only to today, but also does President Trump sign that congressional bill increasing sanctions?

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Nick Schifrin, many thanks.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Thank you.

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