America's Tit-for-Tat With Russia Is Adding Up

The U.S. closure of a consulate is the next salvo in a volley of diplomatic punishments.

 sign outside the entrance to the building of the Consulate General of Russia in San Francisco.
sign outside the entrance to the building of the Consulate General of Russia in San Francisco. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

Updated at 5:36 p.m. ET

It’s become almost a cliché to invoke the Cold War in the context of current U.S.-Russia relations, but the ongoing tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats and closures of diplomatic facilities resemble that era not just in the tensions, but in the tactics. Thursday’s U.S. order to Russia to shut its consulate in San Francisco was the latest in a series of retaliatory measures that began last December—and it also coincided with the arrival in Washington of Anatoly Antonov, the new Russian ambassador to the U.S.

Antonov responded, according to the AFP’s reporter in Moscow, by quoting Lenin on the “hysterical impulses” of the U.S. versus the “iron battalions of the [Russian] proletariat.”

U.S.-Russia relations have been dismal for several years, with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula marking a particularly low point, at least until Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential elections in 2016. This new battle of diplomatic expulsions began last December when President Obama kicked out 30 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and seized Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland to retaliate for Moscow’s election interference. The Kremlin waited until late July—in hopes the Trump administration would reverse the course set by its predecessor—but then it ordered the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic staff in the country by 755 people (mostly Russian employees) and seized two U.S. diplomatic properties in Russia.

On Thursday, the Trump administration retaliated to that retaliation: The State Department ordered Russia to close by September 2 its consulate general in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C., and a consular annex in New York City. (The move does not, so far, mean additional expulsions of diplomatic staff.) The action means each country will now have three consulates in the other. The U.S. consulates in Russia are in Saint Petersburg, Vladivostok, and Yekaterinburg. By the time it complies with the State order, Russia will have consulates in New York, Seattle, and Houston.

“While there will continue to be a disparity in the number of diplomatic and consular annexes, we have chosen to allow the Russian Government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship,” Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russia are in some places cooperating on issues like counterterrorism, but remain at odds on Ukraine, where the Russian annexation of Crimea and covert incursion into Eastern Ukraine has prompted U.S. sanctions—both unilateral and coordinated with the EU. It’s unclear how many Russians will be affected by Thursday’s move, which the State Department said it was undertaking in the “spirit of parity” following Putin’s dramatic expulsions from earlier in the summer. The number of people employed by the U.S. mission in Russia is now at 455—a number that’s significantly lower than the 1,279 staffers (including 934 local hires) employed by the mission in 2013. In 2006, the number was 1,779.

Diplomatic and other expulsions were relatively common during the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off as the world’s two superpowers with opposing ideologies. Each country expelled diplomats accused of being spies. The biggest expulsion of the Cold War from the American side came in the fall of 1986, when President Ronald Reagan ordered 80 Soviet diplomats to leave at once to, in the words of The New York Times at the time, “reduce the ability of the Soviet Embassy to conduct espionage.” Like today’s order to close the consulate, that move occurred in the context of a volley of punishments and counterpunishments spinning out from one event: the arrest of an alleged Soviet spy working at the United Nations. Within a few rounds, the Soviets had pulled all of their staff from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. As Daniel Fried, who worked on the State Department’s Soviet desk at the time, wrote in The Atlantic recently, “Few recall the details of these Reagan-era fights. But many remember that the 1980s ended badly for the Soviet Union.”

In an interview, Fried, the former assistant secretary of secretary of state for Europe, who is now at the Atlantic Council, said the Cold War-era expulsion cycle yielded some insights for today. “At some point, it ends—and [the current tit-for-tat] could end after this. But it may not, and you have to be prepared to take another hit. The lesson we learned in the ’80s was … don’t be afraid of getting into one of these cycles. … The other lesson is, when you’re in a bad cycle with the Russians, don’t be too anxious to find a way out of it. … Don’t feel obliged to be ‘creative,’ which could easily degenerate into racing to the Russians with various proposals, all of which could end up involving concessions on our part. Don’t be desperate. … We are the stronger power.”

Even after that, expulsions picked up again, when in 2001 Robert Hanssen, a senior FBI agent, was discovered to have been a Russian spy. The U.S. expelled 50 Russian diplomats in response. Nine years later, there was more: This time the two countries traded spies—10 Russian agents in the U.S., including the infamous Anna Chapman, for four Russians jailed for their contacts with the West.

Thursday’s State Department statement expressed the hope that the latest round would represent the end of retaliatory measures. Now the Russians get to decide.