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U.S. retaliates, orders Russian consulate and 2 offices closed

The Russian flag flies at half-mast at the

The Russian flag flies at half-mast at the Consulate-General of Russia in San Francisco, Calif., on Dec. 29, 2016. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Josh Edelson

WASHINGTON — The United States retaliated against Russia for its ouster of U.S. Embassy personnel in July by ordering it on Thursday to close its consulate in San Francisco and two of its trade missions in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Russia has until Sept. 2 to close the Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C., and a consular annex in New York City, said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a statement.

Even after the closures, however, Russia will have more diplomatic and consular annexes in this country than the United States has in Russia, a gesture made “in an effort to arrest the downward spiral” in the relationship, a State Department official said.

The order is the latest tit-for-tat in the increasingly tense relations between the United States and Russia, despite President Donald Trump’s repeated goal of improving the ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“This was a decision made by the president,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about closing the Russian offices.

It also comes as a Special Counsel and Congress investigate whether the Trump campaign or his associates colluded with Russia to help him win the presidency after U.S. intelligence agencies determined Russia had meddled in the U.S. presidential campaign.

The U.S. State Department announced the order as the new Russian ambassador to the United States, career diplomat Anatoly Antonov, arrived Thursday in Washington at Dulles International Airport, according to Tass, the Russian news agency.

The State Department said the timing wasn’t intentional.

“I think the relations are really tense,” said Angela Stent, the director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

The relations between the two nuclear powers have over time heated and cooled, Stent said in an interview. But this year, she said, “We haven’t seen any let up.”

In December, former President Barack Obama ordered removal of dozens of Russian officials, the closing of Russian compounds in Upper Brookville and Maryland, and sanctions on Russian individuals and entities for harassment of U.S. diplomats, interference in the U.S. presidential campaign and aggression in Ukraine.

In July, the Senate in a 98-2 vote approved a bill tightening those sanctions and preventing the president from lifting Obama’s penalties, and Trump reluctantly signed the bill.

Russia retaliated, ordering the United States to shrink its mission to 455 embassy and consulate staff members, and closed some U.S. facilities. In her statement, Nauert called that action “unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday to tell him the United States had completed its required downsizing in Russia and to inform him of the closing of the facilities here.

But Nauert added a conciliatory note.

“The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation’s desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides and move forward to achieve the stated goal of both of our presidents: improved relations between our two countries and increased cooperation on areas of mutual concern,” she said.

Putin on Aug. 21 named Antonov, a hard-liner, to replace Sergey Kislyak, who became a central figure in the probes of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia.

On Wednesday, Antonov called for re-establishing regular, direct contacts between U.S. and Russian military chiefs – which were frozen in 2014 after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, according to an interview in the Russian news website Kommersant.

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