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.”