President Vladimir Putin has ordered the US to dramatically cut its diplomatic staff in one Russia’s most aggressive moves against Washington since the waning days of the Cold War. Following the decision Friday, Putin confirmed Monday that 755 US diplomats and technicians have been ordered to leave missions in Russia by September 1, which would reduce US staff levels to 455 — to the same number of diplomats Russia now has in Washington.

The US called the move a “regrettable and uncalled for act.”

The retaliatory measures are in response to a bill passed in Congress last week with overwhelming support that imposes fresh sanctions over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election. The White House said on Friday that President Trump would sign the sanctions bill into law.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has also said that it will seize two US diplomatic properties, a Moscow storage facility and a country house outside the capital, effective August 1.

Putin, of course, chose not to retaliate after Barack Obama imposed new sanctions in the last days of his presidency in 2016 primarily in response to Russia’s cyberattacks and interference in the US election because he was optimistic about new and improved US-Russia relations under the incoming Trump administration.

“We waited a long time for things to perhaps change for the better,” state media reported Putin saying. “We had such hope that the situation would change, but judging by the situation that will not be soon.”

Putin was hoping for the lifting of many of the western sanctions that were imposed after its annexation of Crimea in 2014 as well as a new relationship that acknowledged Moscow “as an equal diplomatic player and partner in trouble spots, such as Syria, and in the wider struggle against Islamist terror,” says Jonathan Marcus of BBC News.

Putin warned that Russia might take more measures against the US but in an interview with Vesti TV said, “I am against it as of today.”

Meanwhile, after meeting with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence discussed the possibility of deploying the US anti-missile defense system in Estonia to counter Russian aggression. The three European countries, which were formerly part of the Soviet Union, are now members of NATO.

Although Pence insisted that US would continue to work for “better relations” with Russia, he reiterated that the US would continue to adhere to Article 5 of the NATO charter, which mandates a collective defense against threats to any member’s security and sovereignty.

At the beginning of his tenure, President Trump had called the organization “obsolete” and criticized members for allegedly failing to contribute enough to its military budget.

Neither the US State Department nor President Trump have yet to comment on Putin’s retaliatory expulsion, the largest in modern history.

– Danielle Bizzarro


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