Russia Seizes US Properties Over Sanctions, Orders Cuts to Embassy Staff

(CN) – Russia seized two diplomatic properties on Friday and ordered the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to cut its staff by September in retaliation for pending new American sanctions over the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election and its invasion of Ukraine.

As recently as Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin had maintained in an interview in Finland that he was still hoping for better relations with the U.S. under President Donald Trump. But the U.S. Senate’s approval of expanded economic sanctions against Russia on Thursday changed that calculus.

The bill, which also imposes new sanctions against Iran and North Korea, is similar to a bill overwhelmingly passed by the House earlier this week. It now goes to the White House for President Trump’s signature.

The president has not said whether he will sign the measure, but a veto would be an empty gesture as the bill was passed in both houses of Congress with veto-proof majorities.

Trump is also under intense pressure to sign the bill due to ongoing investigations by Congress and special prosecutor Robert Mueller into possible collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.

In a statement sent to Ambassador John Tefft, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the U.S. Embassy must reduce its  diplomatic and technical staff members in Russia to 455 by Sept. 1.

(The number is not random, it matches the number of Russian embassy personnel currently in the United States.)

Starting next Tuesday, Russia will also block American access to a warehouse facility in Moscow as well as a park on the Moscow River.

Ambassador Tefft issued a statement expressing his “strong disappointment” in Russia’s retaliatory moves.

“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.

In December, President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized two estates, one on Long Island, in New York, the other on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, in response to Russia’s meddling in the United States presidential election.

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