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President Vladimir Putin has ordered the expulsion of 755 US diplomats from Russia, amid rising tensions.
File image: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

President Putin warned on Sunday that bilateral relations with Washington appeared to be headed for a prolonged period of gridlock. He confirmed the exact number of US diplomats who must leave Russia under measures undertaken in retaliation for new sanctions passed by the US Congress.

"More than a thousand people were working and are still working" at the US embassy and consulates, Putin said in an interview with Rossiya-24 television. "Seven hundred and fifty-five people must stop their activities in Russia." In addition to the embassy in Moscow, there are three consulates in Russia with Americans and Russians working in the diplomatic offices.

The US State Department called the decision "a regrettable and uncalled for act." An official told Reuters: "We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it."

In Estonia on Sunday, US Vice President Mike Pence raised the possibility of deploying the Patriot anti-missile defense system in the Baltic state which is a member of NATO.

On Friday, Russia's Foreign Ministry had demanded that the US slash its diplomatic presence in Russia to 455 by September 1 - the same number of diplomats that Moscow has in Washington.

Putin added that an improvement in Russia's relations with the US could not be expected "any time soon." Indeed, he warned that Russia reserved the right to impose additional sanctions in the future.

"We have waited long enough, hoping that the situation would perhaps change for the better," he said. "But it seems that even if the situation is changing, it's not for any time soon."

Devil in the detail

Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, later on Sunday questioned if the numbers added up, saying on Twitter "We didn't have that many Americans in the entire embassy when I was there."

The cuts would likely affect how quickly the US is able to process Russian applications for visas, McFaul said. "If these cuts are real, Russians should expect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to US," he said.

The US State Department said it did not comment on the number of US officials serving abroad.

Senate toughens Russian sanctions

On Thursday, the US Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill (97-2) to toughen sanctions against Russia for allegedly meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Senate vote followed an equally definite vote in the House of Representatives (419-3).

The bill also strips US President Donald Trump of the authority to end sanctions against Moscow on his own. Iran and North Korea are also targeted in the sanctions bill.

The next legislative step is the presidential signature by Trump, who had campaigned on a platform of closer ties with Russia but said he would sign the bill. 

There are veto-proof majorities backing the legislation in both the House and Senate. The White House is facing congressional probes and an investigation by special prosecutor, former FBI director Robert Mueller into the nature of links between Trump's campaign and the Russian government.

The Kremlin also announced the freezing of two US embassy compounds - a Moscow summer house and a storage facility in the city – as of August 1.

Last December, then US president Barack Obama ordered 35 Russian diplomats to leave the US, and closed down two Russian embassy summer houses that Washington said were being used by Moscow for espionage.

Still, Putin sought to strike a conciliatory note by claiming that Russia and the US were achieving results together, even during this difficult time.

He pointed to the results of a de-escalation zone created in Syria as proof that the two countries could work together.

(This article was first published on DW. You can read the original article here.)