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Putin Orders U.S. to Cut 755 Diplomatic Employees in Russia

In an interview with the state-owned broadcaster Russia 24, Putin said the move was in response to "illegal restrictions" imposed y the United States.
Image: Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media after his annual live call-in show in Moscow on June 15.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that he was ordering the United States to reduce its diplomatic staff in the country by 755.

In an interview with the state-owned broadcaster Russia 24, Putin said the move was in response to "illegal restrictions" imposed by the United States. Putin claimed that more than a "thousand" U.S. diplomatic employees are in Russia, but "755 will have to cease their activities in the Russian Federation."

Initial reports said Putin had ordered 755 Americans out of the country, but in the interview, he said only that he had ordered a reduction in staff, without saying specifically whether all of them were American nationals.

A U.S. State Department official told NBC News that the order would cut the number of diplomatic staff to 455 by Sept. 1.

"This is a regrettable and uncalled-for act," the official said. "We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it."

MSNBC contributor Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said he didn't believe Putin's order targeted only U.S. diplomats. "When I was U.S. ambassador, we didn't have that many Americans in Russia," he said.

But McFaul called the move a "major escalation" far out of proportion with the Obama administration's decision to expel 35 suspected Russian spies in December.

The Russian order came days after Congress passed a new round of sanctions aimed at punishing Moscow for interfering in the United States' presidential election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria.

The bill, which also included sanctions against Iran and North Korea, passed overwhelmingly in the House and the Senate, with only five dissenting votes between them.

A provision in the veto-proof legislation would limit President Donald Trump's ability to unilaterally lift the sanctions. On Friday, the White House said that Trump intended to sign the legislation into law.

Putin said it was unclear whether additional retaliatory measures would be taken, and he cited other areas of common interest — cyber crime, energy and aviation — as evidence that Russia and the United States can work together.

Putin also said a cease-fire in southern Syria brokered by the United States, Russia and Jordan was a "concrete result of joint work."

"We work and achieve results even now, even in this rather complicated situation," Putin said, again dismissing the conclusion among U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

Related: Intelligence Director Says Agencies Agree on Russian Meddling

"Instead of beginning to work constructively, we only hear groundless accusations of interference in the internal affairs of the United States," he said.

After then-President Barack Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian spies over the interference, Putin declined to retaliate — despite being urged to so by Minister Sergei Lavrov. In a post on Twitter, the Russian Embassy in London derided Obama's move "Cold War déjà vu."

"Everybody, incl [American] people, will be glad to see the last of this hapless Adm.," the post said.

Abigail Williams contributed.