MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United States began to scale back its visa services in Russia on Monday, 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 Russian business travelers, 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 U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January.
The U.S. 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 Monday, it would be cancelling a number of appointments and asking applicants to reschedule.
“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,” it said in a statement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. 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.
Lavrov said the U.S. visa move had a “political overtone” and that Moscow would consider how best to respond.
The U.S. step means Russian citizens wanting to visit the United States for business, tourism or educational reasons will no longer be able to apply via U.S. consulates outside Moscow and will have to travel to the Russian capital instead.
That will pose a logistical challenge for many Russians, whose country is the world’s largest by territory. The United States has consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg.
“You now have an entire nation’s work coming through one office with far fewer staff,” said Matthew Morley, an American immigration attorney based in Moscow.
“This scenario would be like all of America suddenly only having one office in Los Angeles to process (visa applications from) New York, Chicago, DC, Boston, and Miami.”
Outside the U.S. consulate in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural mountains, a Reuters reporter saw a man unsuccessfully pleading with staff to accept his visa documents a day early. On hearing a refusal, the man, who declined to identify himself, erupted in anger.
The U.S. Embassy signaled its new scaled-back visa regime could be in place for some time.
“We will operate at reduced capacity for as long as our staffing levels are reduced,” it said.
Russians received more than 190,000 non-immigrant visas to enter the United States in the 2016 fiscal year, according to State Department data, an 18 percent increase over the prior year. Such visas cover business, tourism, scholarly exchanges, and other purposes.
Even before the U.S. announcement, consular work at the U.S. mission in Russia had slowed significantly, according to daily data published by the State Department and tracked by Reuters.
It showed that wait times for visitor visa appointments at the Moscow embassy had risen from 50 days to 70 days between Aug. 2 and Aug. 19, and from 17 days to 44 days at the consulate in St. Petersburg in the same time period.
The chain of tit-for-tat U.S. and Russian measures began last December when outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats over allegations Moscow had meddled in the U.S. 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.
Trump, who took office pledging better ties with Moscow, had promised to weigh a response. The U.S. Embassy in Russia said Moscow’s decision to slash its staff called into question Russia’s sincerity about pursuing better relations.
U.S. Congressional committees and a special counsel are investigating the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia used hacking and other methods to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton in last November’s election.
They are also looking into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian officials. Moscow has denied meddling in the election and Trump denies any campaign collusion.
Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington D.C., Dmitry Solovyov and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow and by Natasha Shurmina in Yekaterinburg; Editing by Christian Lowe and Mark Trevelyan