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Russia-US relations set to worsen after consulate closure

Putin attends the Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg, Russia in July Reuters/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Relations between Russia and the United States reached a new low on Friday after Washington ordered the closure of Moscow's San Francisco consulate and two other facilities.

The retaliatory US move came on the day Russia had set as a deadline for Washington to comply with a Kremlin demand to slash staff numbers at its Russian diplomatic mission by 755 personnel.

This is the latest of a long list of diplomatic clashes that started with the reaction of previous president Barack Obama's administration to Russia’s occupation of the Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine.

Will relations deterioriate further?

“It is clear to everyone that there is not much hope that Russian-American relations will improve,” says Pavel Felgenhauer, a columnist for Nova Gazieta, one of the few Russian papers to resist pressure from President Vladimir Putin's government.

“Russia and America are in a zero-sum game situation, which is not good, because it means that each side is going to see anything that’s bad for Russia as good for America, and everything that’s bad for America as good for Russia. It’s a prolonged confrontation and Moscow officials say that it is going to last many years, maybe a decade, that this standoff is for a long time,” he says.

Others are less pessimistic.

“If we look at the accompanying rhetoric for these events, which is actually quite significant, and historically speaking would indicate real big risks, diplomatically, the rhetoric has not been of the same level of gravity,” says Vadim Nikitin, a Russian-born analyst who now lives and writes in London.

It will be very difficult to put that genie back in the bottle
Russia/US relations 01/09/2017 - by Jan van der Made Listen

“The rhetoric has actually been very conciliatory, very cautious, very measured, he believes. “Look at Russia’s new ambassador, Anatoly Antonov: no hysterical outburst, we are going to act calmly and professionally.

“Even [US Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson, when he spoke to Lavrov to announce the closure of the San Francisco office, spoke about making an effort to stop the downward spiral.

Nikitin points out that the words seem to express a “certain political necessity in America” that leads to the escalation, but at the same time sees the response as “pro-forma”, without too much consequences.

Russian media slam US

Meanwhile in Russia, state-owned media played up the US sanctions and the lack of cooperation between Washington and Moscow in the international theatre, notably in Syria and in North Korea

“Right now, America is the enemy,” says Felgenhauer. “There are some in Russia who have their own opinion but for most it is impossible to have an own opinion when there is such an effective propaganda machine. Most people don’t have individual opinions, when they’re asked questions, they more or less repeat what the propaganda tells them."

US politics

But in the end the current diplomatic escalation may be just caused by an American domestic political struggle.

“I don’t think that Russia is necessarily itself central to this,” says Nikitin. “I think a lot of this anti-Russian feeling that America is driven by antagonism towards the president in the sense that Russia is being used as an issue to attack President [Donald]Trump and his administration.

“It is gone from a political strategy [during the 2016 US elections] used by the opposition, by the Democrats, and it’s entered popular consciousness into a hysteria right now, and I think it will be very difficult to put that genie back in the bottle."