Moscow is belatedly responding to American sanctions leveled on Russia following its intervention in the 2016 election and the invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that the United States cut 755 diplomatic staff at various U.S. posts, bringing the U.S. diplomatic presence in Russia on par with the Russian diplomatic presence in the United States.
Now, despite some of the reporting, it appears not all 755 need be actual American diplomats but rather can include Russian nationals working for the various U.S. embassies and consulates. Even so, the cuts will hurt. So how should the United States proceed?
The priority in trimming staff should be to leave American security interests and citizen services intact as much as possible. Americans who lose their passports or find themselves on the wrong side of Russian law should always have a consular agent to whom they can turn. But, the services that the U.S. consulates provide to Russian citizens are another story.
Perhaps the first thing the United States should do is simply to cease providing visas to Russians from U.S. posts in Russia. A Russian businessman wants to go to Disneyland? Let him know that the only consulates that will now issue visas to Russians are the U.S. consulate in Tbilisi, Georgia, or Kiev, Ukraine. The child of a Russian official wants to attend boarding school in the United States? Let them wait in Ukraine while their paperwork is processed.
Other cuts should be easy. In an age of budget shortfalls, the need for a consulate in Yekaterinburg is questionable, even if there is merit to keeping a skeleton staff in the consulate in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok to provide American citizen services. U.S. resources would be better spent with new consulates in many of the Asian metropolises, which are currently underserved but for which a U.S. ground understanding is essential.
In addition, if Putin is so worried about parity, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might ask why the United States has an embassy in Moscow and then consulates in three Russian cities, yet Russia has its embassy in Washington and then consulates in four other cities? If parity is important, it’s time for Putin to choose which of the Russian consulates get closed. To be frank, the Russian consulates in Seattle and San Francisco probably focus on industrial espionage as much as normal consular duties, anyway.
The downgrading of the diplomatic presence is also an opportunity for Tillerson to start reforming the Department. Every State Department veteran will acknowledge how little of the reporting diplomats do is actually read by anyone other than a desk officer. Despite the globalization of media over the past three decades, there has not been any corollary rethink in how diplomats work.
Putin’s reaction to U.S. sanctions will inevitably lead to hand-wringing in Washington. Some diplomats and analysts will second guess sanctions or blame the Congress for deteriorating relations, in effect letting Russia off the hook for its naked land grab in Ukraine. Rather than see the downgrade in relations as a tragedy, they should see it an opportunity. If done right, a diplomatic draw down will also hurt Russia’s interests more than those of the United States.