The Trump administration has notified Congress that it intends to shut the last two remaining US consulates in Russia.
The State Department told lawmakers last week that it would permanently close the consulate in the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok and temporarily suspend operations at the consulate in Yekaterinburg, just east of the Ural Mountains.
The notice was sent to Congress on December 10 but received little attention at the time. That was three days before it was made public that Russian was suspected of a hack into US government and private computer systems that has raised grave cybersecurity fears.
It comes as Mr Trump has been urged to condemn Russia’s apparent involvement in the massive cyberattack, which is believed to have gone undetected for nine months.
Last night, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, said: “The news of the significant and far-reaching cyber-attacks targeting United States government agencies and corporations is further disturbing evidence that malign actors, including Russia, remain intent on undermining our national security and democracy.
“Sadly and alarmingly, the Trump Administration has for four years turned a blind eye to Putin’s attacks on our American democracy, including his ongoing efforts to attack our election systems and undermine faith in our democratic institutions.
“The era of impunity for our adversaries’ assault on our democracy is over.”
Following the closures, the only diplomatic facility the US will have in Russia will be the embassy in Moscow.
The closures will leave the US without diplomatic representation in a massive swath of Russia – everywhere east of Moscow – and present a major inconvenience for American travelers in Russia’s far east, as well as Russians in the region seeking visas to come to the United States, as all consular services will be handled by the Moscow embassy.
According to the Associated Press, the department’s notification to Congress said the closures are due to caps placed by Russian authorities in 2017 on the number of US diplomats allowed to work in the country.
The moves are “in response to ongoing staffing challenges of the US Mission in Russia in the wake of the 2017 Russian-imposed personnel cap on the US Mission and resultant impasse with Russia over diplomatic visas,” it said.
Russia ordered the closure of the US consulate in St Petersburg in 2018 after the US ordered the Russian consulate in Seattle closed in tit-for-tat actions over the Salisbury poisoning of Sergei Skripal.
The consulate in Vladivostok had been temporarily closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and staff there had already begun removing sensitive equipment, documents and other items.
The consulates in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg employ a total of 10 American diplomats and 33 local staff.
The exact timing of the closures has yet to be determined. The American staff are to be relocated to the embassy in Moscow, while the locals will be laid off, according to the notice.
The department estimated the permanent closure of the Vladivostok consulate would save $3.2 million per year.