On August 21, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow announced that it would suspend indefinitely nonimmigrant visa operations at its consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok. Nonimmigrant visa interviews will be conducted only at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The U.S. mission specified that the decision was made, after Russia's decision to reduce the U.S. diplomatic presence. Meanwhile, all operations will be suspended on August 23 and will be resumed in Moscow on September 1 (Russian government's deadline for the reduction of U.S. personnel).
After the new round of sanctions against Russia passed the Senate on July 27, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Washington would have to trim its diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 people (before the forced reduction, the U.S. diplomatic mission included more than 1,200 personnel). The Russian Foreign Ministry stated on July 28: "We suggest our American counterparts bringing the number of diplomatic and technical staff at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, the consulates general in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, into strict correspondence with the number of Russian diplomats and technical staff currently working in the United States, until September 1, 2017. This means that the total number of American diplomatic and consular office employees in the Russian Federation must be reduced to 455 people. In the event of further unilateral action on behalf of U.S. officials to reduce the Russian diplomatic staff in the U.S., we will respond accordingly."
On August 1, the New York Times stated that given the continuing deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations, "programs that involve cooperation on everything from trade to culture to science are likely to be reduced or eliminated… The other area expected to take a heavy hit will be public services, like issuing visas to Russian travelers to the United States, which is likely to slow to a glacial pace." The article also mentions that many visa applications are being rejected. The Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta also noted that without any doubt, after September 1, visa issuing procedures will take more time. The New York Times stated: "Under the new procedures, Russians in or near Moscow will have to wait as long as six months for a United States visa. For those in distant regions, especially the Far East, travel to America will be much more difficult, if not impossible."
Commenting on U.S. consular procedures, Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova wrote on her Facebook account on August 1: "Goodbye, America? Immediately after Russia responded [to American sanctions by expelling American diplomatic staff], the Americans started to scare Russian citizens by complicating and delaying the issue of American visas… What were, and are, hundreds of American employees doing in Russia? For a diplomat this question is indecent. But the whole situation has long ago been falling out of the basket of delicacies… So, what did American diplomats do in Russia? Perhaps they have improved the system of issuing visas by speeding up this process? And now attention, drum roll. In the past 4-5 months, the time period for issuing a US visa has increased 4-5 times… if previously, the notorious visa interview took place approximately ten days after all documents were submitted, now, the applicant is invited for an interview after 6-7 weeks... If the American bureaucracy is unable or unwilling to deal with visas… We are ready to lend colleagues a helping hand in this issue, for example, to share the experience."
U.S. Mission To Russia Statement: Visa Operations At The U.S. Consulates Will Remain Suspended Indefinitely
On August 21, 2017, the U.S. mission to Russia published the following statement:
"Russia's decision to reduce the United States' diplomatic presence here calls into question Russia's seriousness about pursuing better relations. We will maintain sufficient staff to carry out essential elements of our mission.
"Due to the Russian government-imposed cap on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia, all nonimmigrant visa operations across Russia will be suspended on August 23. Operations will resume in Moscow on September 1; visa operations at the U.S. consulates will remain suspended indefinitely. Currently scheduled appointments will be cancelled and applicants will be provided instructions on how to reschedule. Please see our website and the attached Fact Sheet for further details."
In the Fact Sheet, the U.S. mission specified:
"Beginning September 1, nonimmigrant visa interviews will be conducted only at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. NIV [nonimmigrant visa] interviews at the U.S. Consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok are suspended until further notice. As of 0900 Moscow time Monday, August 21, the U.S. Mission will begin canceling current nonimmigrant visa appointments countrywide. The NIV applicants who have their interviews canceled should call the number below to reschedule their interview at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for a later date. NIV applicants originally scheduled for an interview at the U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok should call the number below if they wish to reschedule their interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow."
The Fact Sheet emphasized that the suspension was indefinite and Russian governmental policies were to blame:
Q: "How long will the suspension last?"
A: "We will operate at reduced capacity for as long as our staffing levels are reduced."
Q: "Why did the U.S. Embassy cancel visa interviews scheduled before September 1?"
A: "Planning for departures and staff reductions has already begun in order to meet the Russian government's September 1 deadline for the reduction of personnel."
U.S. government-funded broadcasting organization Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published the following chart on nonimmigrant U.S. Visas issued to Russians from 1997 to 2016. (Source: Rferl.org)
Official Reactions To U.S. Visa Suspension in Consulates
Lavrov: The Decision Is Another Attempt To Incur Russian Citizens' Displeasure With The Authorities
At a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov answered a question about the new U.S. measures drastically curtailing the issuance of nonimmigrant visas to Russians:
Question: "One hour ago, the response to Moscow's measures concerning the U.S. diplomatic corps and diplomatic missions in Russia was published on the U.S. Embassy website. Specifically, it said that issuance of non-immigration visas will be suspended from August 23 to later resume in a significantly reduced scope. Starting from September 1, all interviews will only be held at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. This will affect application processing times. Moreover, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the Consulate General in St Petersburg will stop accepting visa applications from citizens of Belarus. How would you comment on this situation? Is retaliation possible?"
Sergey Lavrov: "I have just become aware of this decision. I only read the media reports but we will examine it more thoroughly.
"As my first reaction, I can say the following. As you know, when at the end of last year the Obama administration was in its final throes and seeking to sabotage prospects of the Russia-U.S. relations under the new administration, it imposed tough sanctions and demanded the deportation of our diplomats, which was absolutely illegitimate and a violation of international law, and seized Russia's property, we did not respond and only responded when the U.S. Congress, in a Russophobic rage, passed a new and quite far-reaching set of sanctions. Our response was as balanced as possible and strictly within the limits of diplomatic practice and traditions. In response to actual seizure of our diplomatic property, we asked the United States to stop using their diplomatic property in Moscow and to reduce the total number of diplomats and operating personnel of U.S. foreign missions in the Russian Federation to the number equal to Russia's staff in the U.S. We assumed that like Russia's, the US diplomatic school and diplomatic service has established good traditions and experience in training highly competent professionals who can deal with the tasks of foreign embassies and consulates and have modern technology for successful operations.
"It would be disrespectful of us to say that equalizing the number of employees of U.S. foreign missions in Russia and the Russian foreign missions in the United States would seriously limit the U.S. diplomatic service's capabilities to perform its consular functions, including issuance of visas. I believe the true reason for the decisions announced today is different. My first impression was that the decision is another attempt to incur Russian citizens' displeasure with the authorities. This is the well-known logic of those who organize color revolutions and simply inertia from the Obama administration. The same logic explains the decision that citizens of Belarus must, from now on, apply for U.S. visas not from Moscow and St Petersburg but travel to Vilnius, Kiev and Warsaw. This measure clearly has a political motivation.
"As concerns our action in response, as I already said, the decisions announced by the Americans today need careful consideration. We'll see. I can only say one thing. We will not take it out on American citizens. If anyone was hoping that a bad example would be contagious, they were wrong."
(Mid.ru, August 21, 2017)
Official MFA Statement: The U.S. Tries To Stir Up Discontent Amongst Russian Citizens
In connection with the U.S. decision to tighten the procedure of issuing visas to Russian citizens, the Russian MFA published the following statement:
"In connection with the statement of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on changes in the timing and procedure for issuing so-called non-immigrant visas, we would like to note the following.
"Our U.S. colleagues claim that meeting our demand to restore parity in terms of the number of employees of the Russian and American foreign missions hinders the normal performance of consular functions, but the reality is that Washington is actually pursuing completely different goals. The goal is obvious − to try to provoke the discontent of Russian citizens with the difficulties purportedly caused by the staff reduction of U.S. diplomatic and consular missions.
"In reality, the problem lies in the inadequate efficiency of the visa offices of U.S. missions in Russia. The facts speak for themselves. While 16 consular officers of Italy processed 478,000 visa requests last year, and their five Spanish counterparts issued 877,000 visas to Russians, the much larger staff of the U.S. consulates managed to issue only about 186,000 visas.
"We would advise our American colleagues not to misinform people by using the staff reduction in Russia as a pretext to add 'irritants' to the already complicated Russian-U.S. relationship."
Senator Klintsevich: The U.S. Decision To Suspend Nonimmigrant Visa Is A Dirty Trick
First Deputy Chairman of Russia's Federation Council Defense and Security Committee Franz Klintsevich: "I would describe the American decision on suspending nonimmigrant visa issuance in Russia as a dirty trick, which is definitely out of tune with the status of the United States as a great power. It is clear that they hope to whip up dissatisfaction among a certain segment of the Russian population against the moves by the country's leadership to roll back the number of employees at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia."
However, according to Klitsevich, the U.S. will not achieve its goals: "This will not work. People realize that the issue at hand is a tit-for-tat measure. They also realize that the suspension of visa issuance operations is not caused by purely technical reasons and that the American diplomatic mission's staff members have all the means to fully do so in spite of the staff cuts."
Senator Pushkov: The U.S. Decision Is Small Change Revenge
Senator Alexey Pushkov wrote in his twitter account: "If the U.S. wanted to 'punish' the Kremlin by suspending visas issuance to Russian nationals, they've got it wrong. It just looks like small change revenge."
(Source: Twitter.com/Alexey_Pushkov, August 21, 2017)
Federation Council Speaker Matvienko: 'An Eye For An Eye' Is Not Always Necessary
Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko said: "I believe that we should not let the surge of sanctions and confrontation spiral out of control. 'An eye for an eye' is not always necessary. Of course, there is accepted international practice, and Russia has the right to respond to any hostile rhetoric. But it is sometimes necessary to rise above it and not get involved in the provocative measures that the United States of America pronounces step by step."
Russian Political Expert Kremenyuk: We Overcame The Cold War, And Yet We Experience New Difficulties
Deputy Director of the U.S. & Canada Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Viktor Kremenyuk, noted:
"The relations between our countries are in any case difficult. This decision will strike hard at people, who want to travel to the U.S., those who live in the provinces. From now on they will have to travel to Moscow in order to complete formal procedures. This measure by the U.S. embassy is yet one more proof that our relations are lousy and they are not getting any better... We have, as it seems, gotten through the Cold War, negotiated its cessation and agreed to cooperate on various issues. And yet we experience new difficulties. It's possible to blame all of that on the U.S., but the thing is that the both sides did not manage to find a right tone for a conversation."
(Gazeta.ru, August 21, 2017)
A day after U.S. officials announced the suspension of visa services at U.S. consulates in Russia, Russian media outlets reported about long lines outside the Moscow embassy. Reports claimed that Russians were rushing to submit visa applications for a review process, expected to take as long as six months, prior to the closing of consular activities at the Moscow Embassy (from August 23 to September 1). As reported by independent media outlets Meduza.io, articles about "gigantic" lines outside the embassy appeared in Russia's news agency RIA Novosti, as well as in Metro, Life, Vesti.ru, Ura.ru, REN-TV, and other media outlets.
Media outlet Life.ru's title: "Long Line For Visas Formed At The U.S. Embassy in Moscow" (Source: Life.ru, August 22, 2017)
Vesti.ru: "Last Day: A Long Queue Lined Up In Front Of The U.S. Embassy" (Source: Vesti.ru, August 22, 2017)
However, according to the Russian media outlet RBC, only seven people were waiting outside the U.S. mission. RBC also stressed that the number of people waiting to enter the embassy turned out to be less than the reporters.
Photo from outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow, published by RBC. (Source: Rbc.ru, August 22, 2017)
Responding to the Russian media reports, several journalists noted that there was no line outside the U.S. mission. Kevin Rothrock, a senior editor at the English version of Meduza.io, tweeted: "Russian state news agency spreads fake story about long line outside U.S. embassy in Moscow a day after U.S. announces major visa cutbacks."
(Source: Twitter.com/KevinRothrock, August 22, 2017)
Replying to Kevin Rothrock, CBC's Moscow correspondent Chris Brown tweeted: "He's right. Zero line up at U.S. embassy today, but lots of media came to follow up the fake report."
It is also worth noting that the website TJournal republished a photograph tweeted by RIA Novosti, showing a large crowd gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow waiting to enter the mission. The tweet, which was later deleted, had the following caption: "A line for visas has formed outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow."
However, TJournal proved that the photo published by Ria Novosti was not showing a line for visas, The photo was actually taken on July 22, when people gathered outside the U.S. embassy to pay tribute to Chester Bennington, the front man of the American alternative rock band Linkin Park, who died on July 20.
RIA Novosti's caption on Twitter: "A line for visas has formed outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow."
(Source: Tjournal.ru, August 22, 2017)
Instagram account (instagram.com/s_m_u_m/) showing the same photograph, taken on July 22, 2017, with the following hashtags: #linkinpark, #chesterbennington. (Source: Tjournal.ru, August 22, 2017)
RIA news' feature article on the issue did not display the twitter photo. Later in the day, RIA published an update, stating that the line outside the embassy "disappeared" around dinner time.
Feature image for the article in Ria Novosti website. Caption: "A line for visas has formed outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow." (Source: Ria.ru, August 22, 2017)
 Mid.ru, July 28, 2017.
 Nytimes.com, August 1, 2017.
 Nytimes.com, August 1, 2017.
 Tass.com, August 24, 2017.
 Nytimes.com, August 21, 2017.
 Facebook.com/maria.zakharova.167, August 1, 2017; Themoscowtimes.com, August 2, 2017.
 Ru.usembassy.gov, August 21, 2017.
 Ru.usembassy.gov, August 21, 2017.
 Ru.usembassy.gov, August 21, 2017.
 Mid.ru, August 21, 2017.
 Mid.ru, August 22, 2017.
 Tass.com, August 21, 2017.
 Twitter.com/Alexey_Pushkov, August 21, 2017.
 Tass.com, August 24, 2017.
 Gazeta.ru, August 21, 2017.
 Meduza.io, August 22, 2017. See: https://meduza.io/en/shapito/2017/08/22/russian-news-outlets-spread-fake-story-about-huge-lines-outside-the-u-s-embassy-in-moscow
 See: https://ria.ru/society/20170822/1500824638.html
 See: https://www.metronews.ru/novosti/moscow/reviews/v-moskve-u-posolstva-ssha-vystroilas-gigantskaya-ochered-za-vizami-1298807/, the content was removed.
 Life.ru, August 22, 2017.
 Vesti.ru, August 22, 2017.
 See http://ren.tv/novosti/2017-08-22/u-amerikanskogo-posolstva-v-moskve-vystroilas-ochered-za-vizami
 Rbc.ru, August 22, 2017; Meduza.io, August 22, 2017.
 Rbc.ru, August 22, 2017.
Twitter.com/KevinRothrock, August 22, 2017.
 Twitter.com/CBCChrisBrown, August 22, 2017; Meduza.io, August 22, 2017.
 Ria Novosti removed the tweet: https://twitter.com/rianru/status/899887749976797184
 Tjournal.ru, August 22, 2017; Meduza.io, August 22, 2017.
 See: https://ria.ru/society/20170822/1500824638.html
 See https://ria.ru/society/20170822/1500865964.html