MOSCOW (AP) — In a step that could affect hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists, the U.S. Embassy in Russia said Monday it would suspend issuing nonimmigrant visas for eight days from Wednesday in response to the Russian decision to cap embassy staff.
The embassy made the decision after the Russian Foreign Ministry ordered a cap on the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia, it said in a statement, adding that it would resume issuing visas in Moscow on Sept. 1, but maintain the suspension at consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok indefinitely.
Nearly a quarter of a million Russian tourists visited the U.S. last year, according to Russian tourism officials.
Earlier this month, Russia ordered the U.S. to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755, or two-thirds.
Moscow's move was a long-expected response to former U.S. President Barack Obama's move to expel 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two Russian recreational retreats in the United States following allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. vote.
President Vladimir Putin said Russia felt forced to reciprocate after the U.S. Congress approved sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and for its aggression in Ukraine and Syria. He dismissed the new package of sanctions as based on "unfounded accusations."
The vast majority of the more than 1,000 employees at the various U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia, including the embassy in Moscow and the three consulates, are believed to be Russian nationals.
The U.S. embassy said Monday that Russia's decision to cut its staff "calls into question Russia's seriousness about pursuing better relations." However, it insisted that it would be able to maintain adequate staffing "to carry out essential elements of our mission."
The U.S. State Department said the decision to suspend visas was not retaliation for Russia's capping of U.S. diplomatic personnel, noting that having fewer personnel inevitably results in a reduction in the services they can provide.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the U.S. move as "another attempt to fan Russian citizens' discontent with the government" and a continuation of positions taken under the previous White House.
"It's a well-known logic of those who stage revolutions," Lavrov said in a reference to Moscow's long-held claims that the U.S. was fomenting unrest in Russia and other ex-Soviet nations. Washington has denied the accusations.
Asked about a possible Russian reaction, Lavrov said that unlike the U.S. government Russia "is not going to take it out on U.S. citizens."
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.