By NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — In a step that could affect hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists, the U.S. Embassy in Russia said Monday it would suspend issuing nonimmigrant visas for eight days from Wednesday in response to the Russian decision to cap embassy staff.
The embassy made the decision after the Russian Foreign Ministry ordered a cap on the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia, it said in a statement, adding that it would resume issuing visas in Moscow on Sept. 1, but maintain the suspension at consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok indefinitely.
Also on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed a successor to Sergei Kislyak as ambassador to the United States.
The Kremlin said Putin replaced Kislyak, whose tenure ended in July, with Anatoly Antonov, a deputy foreign minister and former deputy defense minister seen as a hardliner regarding the U.S.
Kislayk played a prominent role the controversy over Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after lying about contacts with Kislyak. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election after reports that he hadn’t disclosed meetings with Kislyak.
Earlier this month, Russia ordered the U.S. to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755, or by two-thirds, heightening tensions between Washington and Moscow after the U.S. Congress approved sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and for its aggression in Ukraine and Syria.
President Putin said that Moscow felt forced to reciprocate to the new package of sanctions against what he dismissed as “unfounded accusations,” but that it would hold off on further steps against the U.S.
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.
Nearly a quarter of a million Russian tourists visited the U.S. last year, according to Russian tourism officials.
The U.S. embassy said on Monday that Russia’s decision to cut its staff “calls into question Russia’s seriousness about pursuing better relations.” It insisted however that it will able to maintain adequate staffing “to carry out essential elements of our mission.”
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.”