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America's Shrinking Diplomatic Presence In Russia Comes At A Cost For Both Countries

Apr 11, 2018
Originally published on April 11, 2018 9:06 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On a reporting trip to Moscow last month, I stopped by the American embassy for a meeting. It's a big compound smack in central Moscow. Inside is the warren of reception rooms and offices you would expect and desks, lots of desks, lots of which are now sitting empty. Sixty State Department employees were forced to leave Russia last week. That's on top of more than 700 diplomatic staff getting cut last summer. NPR's Lucian Kim reports on the costs of America's shrinking diplomatic presence.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Last week, the 60 U.S. diplomats and their families boarded a charter plane in Moscow and left Russia maybe forever. They were the latest casualties in tit-for-tat expulsions that saw the same number of Russians kicked out of the U.S. after a former Russian intelligence officer was poisoned in England. But after they left, some of the American diplomats left a video message online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in Russian).

KIM: In Russian and in English, they told personal stories about their first encounters with Russians or what they did in the embassy. Maria Olson, the embassy's spokeswoman, was among them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA OLSON: I'm departing here very sad at having to leave my friends and my colleagues, including my Russian colleagues, who are very professional and very invested in trying to build better U.S.-Russia relations.

KIM: The latest round of expulsions split up families, sent home Ambassador Jon Huntsman's personal interpreter and wiped out the entire political section. While these diplomats will eventually be replaced, former Moscow Ambassador James Collins says it's bound to hurt relations with Russia.

JAMES COLLINS: The capacity for misunderstandings across a range of issues are mounting. We are basically addressing that issue by further reducing our ability to talk to Moscow. And I think this is a big mistake.

KIM: The massive reduction in diplomatic staff and the closure of the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg have also led to problems for ordinary Russians. The official wait time to get an interview for a tourist or business visa is now more than eight months, and Russians are flocking to other European capitals to apply for U.S. visas there. That's created an opportunity for Daniil Sergeyev, who runs a Moscow visa agency.

DANIIL SERGEYEV: (Through interpreter) Our clients aren't concerned about worsening relations. Maybe they first went to America as a student, then with their parents, and now they want to visit Disneyland with their kids. They just want to be tourists.

KIM: Sergeyev says he hasn't heard of anybody getting a tourist visa in Moscow since last summer. He's advising clients to try U.S. consulates in Helsinki, Prague or Seoul depending on what part of Russia they live in. But not everyone can afford an extra trip just to get a visa, so many young Russians look for a piece of America in the U.S. embassy.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

KIM: While outside Moscow traffic snarls past, inside the American center, there's the institutional feel of a high school anywhere in America. On Tuesday evening, there were three things going on simultaneously - an English class, a lecture on Siberian tigers and an informal award ceremony for college students finishing a course on environmental awareness...

(APPLAUSE)

KIM: ...Complete with a pizza party.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T STOP THE FEELING!")

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Dance. Dance. All those things...

KIM: Yekaterina Petrunina is one of the students.

YEKATERINA PETRUNINA: I think that we must not go back to Cold War reality. And most young people, especially who study at university and who have a certain level of education - they believe that our countries, Russia and the United States, should not be enemies.

KIM: One day in the not-too-distant future, Petrunina hopes to visit America despite all the difficulties. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.