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Putin Responds To Sanctions Against Russia With Expulsion Of U.S. Diplomatic Staff

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Russia today, President Vladimir Putin said his country will expel 755 U.S. diplomatic and technical staff from Russia by September 1. Putin's announcement came during an interview on Russian state television today, and it comes after Congress overwhelmingly approved new sanctions that the Trump White House says it will sign. We're joined on the line now by reporter Charles Maynes, who's in Moscow. Charles, welcome to the show.

CHARLES MAYNES: Good to be with you.

KING: So what exactly did Vladimir Putin say today?

MAYNES: Well, he was giving more context to an announcement actually that was from his foreign ministry on Friday. That was announcing that, in fact, Russia was retaliating against these U.S. sanctions and forcing the U.S. embassy here in Moscow to reduce its staff to 455 people, along with this announcement that they seizing two U.S. embassy compounds. But this number of 455 staff, now that's the same number of Russian personnel working in the U.S.

Now, that's the same number of Russian personnel working in the U.S. But it wasn't entirely clear how many staff that meant would actually lose their jobs. And tonight, Putin gave a number. He said that 755 people would have to stop working at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. He also mentioned that there were more punitive measures possibly in place coming down the line, but he suggested that he didn't want to do that if not - if it wasn't necessary.

KING: Charles, can you walk us through why Vladimir Putin is doing this now?

MAYNES: Well, he said - he answered this question tonight. He said essentially he was - his patience had run out. He said they were waiting for quite a long time for something to change in the U.S.-Russian relationship, holding out hope that this would somehow happen, but it is - it appeared now in lieu of these new sanctions that have been approved by the House and the Senate and now come up to Donald Trump's White House for a signing, that somehow these changes would never happen anytime soon. So there's a sense of growing frustration that this promise detente, which, of course, candidate Donald Trump said he wanted with Russia, isn't going to happen.

There's also growing frustration that this promise detente with the Trump White House hasn't happened. He also pointed to a decision by President Obama back in December 2016, when President Obama essentially expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized two Russian diplomatic compounds. Putin at this time, famously, turned the other cheek. And now he was saying he couldn't let that go answered.

I mean, his strategy in, of course, turning the other cheek at the time was he was hoping for better relations with the Trump White House. That hasn't happened for a variety of reasons. The Russians think mainly because essentially Donald Trump's enemies in Washington, whether that's Republicans that are hawks and anti-Russian or the Democratic opposition or what they like to call here the deep state somehow are preventing Donald Trump from pursuing the policies he says he wants.

KING: Do we know anything about what this will mean on the ground in Russia? I mean, 755 people. How is this going to affect the U.S. embassy's ability to function?

MAYNES: Well, I should note that we - I reached out to the U.S. Embassy, and they're not commenting yet. So keep in mind, this is Vladimir Putin's number, not the embassy's number of staff that's facing cutbacks. But clearly, this is a blow. You know, we don't know at this point how many are, say, U.S. diplomats that will have to leave Russia, how many are technical staff. And many of these are Russians, frankly, the Russian nationals who work at the U.S. Embassy doing a variety of things - everything from translators, drivers and other sorts of support functions.

But clearly, the Russian staff is sizable, so it will be a significant number of Russian nationals. But it is going to influence the ability of the U.S. Embassy to function here. The irony, to me anyway, is that the - one of the Russian complaints about the Trump White House over the past six months, particularly with the State Department, is that there hasn't been anyone there. It's understaffed, and no one picks up the phone. And now that appears to be the case at the U.S. Embassy as, well.

KING: Reporter Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.