U.S. scales back Russian visa operations after Putin cuts embassy staff

The United States began to sharply scale back its visa services in Russia today, drawing an angry reaction from Moscow.

The United States began to sharply scale back its visa services in Russia today, drawing an angry reaction from Moscow, three weeks after President Vladimir Putin ordered Washington to more than halve its embassy and consular staff.

The move, which will hit business travellers, tourists and students, was the latest in a series of bilateral measures that have driven relations to a new post-Cold War low, thwarting hopes on both sides that they might improve after US President Donald Trump took office in January.

The US embassy said it was suspending all non-immigrant visa operations across Russia on Wednesday and that when they resumed, on Sept. 1, they would be offered "on a greatly reduced scale."

Beginning today, it would be cancelling an unspecified number of appointments and asking applicants to reschedule, it said in a statement.

"Capacity for interviews in the future will be greatly reduced because we have had to greatly reduce our staffing levels to comply with the Russian government's requirement," the embassy told applicants on its website.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the US demarche looked like an attempt to provoke ill-feeling among ordinary Russians against the authorities.

"The American authors of these decisions have come up with another attempt to stir up discontent among Russian citizens about the actions of the Russian authorities," Lavrov told reporters. "It's a well known logic ... and this is the logic of those who organise colour revolutions."

The phrase 'colour revolutions' refers to uprisings that have unseated pro-Moscow leaders in various countries of the former Soviet Union, an area that Russia regards as its sphere of influence, and which it accuses Washington of inciting.

Lavrov said the US visa move had a "political overtone" and that Moscow would consider how best to respond.

The US step means Russian citizens wanting to visit the United States for business, tourism or educational reasons will no longer be able to apply via US consulates outside Moscow and will have to travel to the Russian capital instead.

That will pose a serious logistical challenge for many Russians, whose country, the world's largest by territory, stretches across 11 time zones.

The United States has consulates in St Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg.

The chain of tit-for-tat US and Russian measures began last December when outgoing US President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats over allegations Moscow had meddled in the US presidential election, which it denied.

Putin refrained from retaliating at the time but last month, after Congress overwhelmingly approved new sanctions against Russia, he ordered Washington to cut its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia by 755 people, or about 60 percent, by Sept. 1. 

Russia said earlier this month that the United States issued around 150,000 visas to Russian citizens last year.

Special Reports