US plans to shutter remaining consulates in Russia

A Russian flag flies next to the US embassy building in Moscow on Oct. 22. By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

(CNN) -- The Trump administration has informed lawmakers of its plan to shutter its two remaining consulates in Russia.

In a notification dated December 10, the US State Department told Congress it intends to close the consulate in Vladivostok and suspend operations at the consulate in Yekaterinburg.

Their closures would leave the US with only one diplomatic outpost in Russia -- the US Embassy in Moscow -- at a time of heightened tensions between the two nations and the notice comes as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take the helm of the US government.

Just this week -- after the notice was sent to Congress -- news emerged of a widespread, ongoing cyberattack against numerous agencies of the federal government as well as a number of Fortune 500 companies. The attack is suspected to have ties to Russia.

According to the notice, a copy of which was obtained by CNN on Friday, the State Department said it "intends to take these steps in response to ongoing staffing challenges for the U.S. Mission in Russia in the wake of the 2017 Russian-imposed personnel cap on the U.S. Mission and the resultant impasse with Russia over diplomatic visas."

A State Department spokesperson confirmed the intended moves, saying that "the Secretary of State, in close consultation with Ambassador John Sullivan, has decided to close the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok and to suspend operations at the U.S. Consulate General in Yekaterinburg as part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the safe and secure operation of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Russian Federation."

"The Department's decision on the U.S. consulates in Russia was taken to optimize the work of the U.S. mission in Russia," the spokesperson said Friday. "The resulting realignment of personnel at U.S. Embassy Moscow will allow us to advance our foreign policy interests in Russia in the most effective and safe manner possible."

"No action related to the Russian consulates in the United States is planned," they added.

The congressional notification said that 10 US diplomats assigned to the consulates will be reassigned to the embassy in Moscow and the 33 locally employed staff will be laid off. The notice said that once the congressional notification procedure was completed, the consulates, "with support from Embassy Moscow, plan to begin procedures to remove all sensitive material from the consulate, including computer equipment and controlled consular material."

The department temporarily suspended operations in March at the consulate in Vladivostok due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Russian government forced the closure of the US consulate in St. Petersburg in 2018 in a retaliatory move. Now, with the planned closure of the remaining two consulates -- which was first reported by the Associated Press -- all services for American citizens will be run out of Moscow.

The State Department told lawmakers that "the planned closure would not adversely affect the Mission's ability to advance core U.S. national interests, assist U.S. citizens, or to conduct adequate oversight of programs because all of those functions would continue to be performed by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow."

It is unclear when the closures will be completed or if they will be finalized before Biden takes office next month. The President-elect has said he and his team are preparing a "cost imposition strategy" to respond to Russia for its disruptive measures, including the cyberattack if Moscow is deemed responsible. Those measures will include, but won't be limited to sanctions, according to a source close to Biden.

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