Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov today warned that Moscow may retaliate against a U.S. order closing the Russian consulate in San Francisco but then appeared to extend an olive branch to President Donald Trump, saying the Kremlin was still eager to take him up on his pre-election promises to improve relations.
“Naturally, we will respond toughly to these things that bring us harm absolutely out of nowhere,” Lavrov told students during a televised address at a Moscow university.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin is “not looking for a fight” and instead wants to pursue Trump’s pledges for better relations, Lavrov added.
“All this story with the exchange of sanctions was undertaken not by us, but by the Obama administration precisely with this goal to undermine Russian-American relations,” Lavrov said.
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The diplomatic conflicts, he argued, are meant to hinder Trump “as much as possible in fulfilling his pre-election statements about the necessity of normalizing relations with Russia.”
“President Trump is now also repeating these statements and President Putin has more than once said that we are interested in that,” Lavrov said.
The State Department Thursday ordered Russia to close its consulate in San Francisco by Saturday, as well as two diplomatic annexes in New York and Washington. The move was in response to a Kremlin order in late-July that the United States cut 755 of its diplomatic staff in Russia.
The Kremlin ordered the staff cuts, as well as the closure of a summerhouse and some storage facilities belonging to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, after Congress imposed fresh sanctions on Russia over its alleged meddling in the 2016 election.
Lavrov’s comments suggested Moscow would like to slow the cycle of retaliation. But he expressed doubts Trump would now be able to pursue détente.
“It takes two to tango,” he said. “It seems to me, our U.S. counterparts for now are for now performing solo breakdance moves recently.”
Both sides have sought to couch the standoff as a restrained dispute around numbers. Russia’s foreign ministry has argued the cap on U.S. staff was intended to ensure “parity” between the size of the two countries’ diplomatic presences.
In ordering the closures, the U.S. State Department persisted with that line, arguing it matched the number of consulates the two countries hold.
“In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring the Russian government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington DC, and a consular annex in New York,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Thursday.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the decision had been made directly by Trump.
There is speculation now whether Russia would retaliate against the U.S. measures, perhaps by closing one of the United States’ three consulates in Russia.
The United States has consulates in three Russian cities: St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and the far eastern port, Vladivostok.
Lavrov said Russia was studying the new U.S. restrictions but told the students that America’s understanding of parity is “peculiar.”
Two senior Russian lawmakers, however, who often signal the Kremlin’s position on international affairs, suggested a symmetrical response to the U.S. actions might not be necessary.
“I consider that it’s not worth Russia taking a symmetrical response,” Leonid Slutsky, head of Russia's parliamentary committee on international affairs, said, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
“On the contrary,” he said, Russia should “try to propose all possible efforts for the preservation of the levels of diplomatic relations with the U.S.”
Anton Klimov, head of Russia’s Senate committee on state sovereignty, also told Interfax the “answer doesn’t necessarily have to be a mirror response.”