Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a glass during a ceremony of receiving diplomatic credentials from foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin in Moscowin November 2016. (Reuters)
MOSCOW — When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Sunday that the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Russia would have to cut 755 diplomatic and technical staff, many people had the same first thought: we have 755 diplomats in Russia for Putin to expel? Doesn’t that seem like a lot?
#BREAKING 755 US diplomats must leave Russia, President Putin announces
— AFP news agency (@AFP) July 30, 2017
The answer is yes, that does seem like a lot. Because no, we don’t have 755 diplomats in Russia.
We dont have 755 American diplomats in Russia. https://t.co/KpgZMdCODP
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 30, 2017
So what is Putin talking about? Altogether, the U.S. government employs more than an estimated 1,200 people in Russia. The majority are hired by the Department of State, charged with running the U.S. Embassy and consulates, visa processing and handling other diplomatic tasks. But it also includes employees of dozens of governmental agencies and departments, like the Department of Defense, Department of Agriculture, NASA, and even the Library of Congress. Collectively, we will call this U.S. Mission Russia or just Mission Russia.
I write that Mission Russia employs an “estimated” 1,200 people because the U.S. Embassy in Russia and State Department have not responded to our requests for data about how many people are employed in Mission Russia.
Luckily, the blog Diplopundit had a helpful post yesterday, breaking down the numbers using earlier reports: “In 2013, US Mission Russia (embassy and consulates general) employed 1,279 staff. This included 301 U.S. direct-hire positions and 934 locally employed (LE) staff positions from 35 U.S. Government agencies.”
Those statistics came from a 2013 report put together by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General, which inspects the “approximately 260 embassies, diplomatic posts, and international broadcasting installations throughout the world” to see whether resources are properly allocated to achieve American policy goals.
The full 2013 report contains a wealth of information about who works for U.S. Mission Russia, including a breakdown of how many U.S. and foreign staff work for each government department and agency. I have included a few thoughts below. There is also a report from 2007 available, which we’ll use for comparison. One note: the 2013 report gives nationality and department data for only 1,200 of Mission Russia’s 1,279 employees.
The majority of U.S. Mission Russia employees are not Americans, and won’t be expelled: Of 1,200 people employed in 2013 in Mission Russia, 333 were U.S. citizens and 867 were Foreign National Staff, most of whom were likely Russian nationals. Using the 2013 numbers, if the U.S. Mission is forced to let go of 755 people, a majority of them would not be U.S. citizens, and likely would not be expelled from the country.
Putin said he is seeking parity, and wants U.S. Mission Russia to employ the same number of people as Russia does in the United States (455 people). But the sheer number of employees that Mission Russia will have to cut means this will likely be seen as an escalation, requiring its own response from Washington.
This will hurt Russians: The largest single departmental employer in U.S. Mission Russia is the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services, or ICASS, employing 652 people in 2013 (that was a majority of the staff in U.S. Mission Russia). Of those 652 people, 603 were “Foreign National Staff,” likely Russians, considering the location.
What do they do? Mostly administrative services. The ICASS website has a helpful rundown: “… motor pool operations and vehicle maintenance, travel services, reproduction services, mail and messenger services, information management, reception and telephone system services, purchasing and contracting, human resources services, cashiering, vouchering, accounting, budget preparation, non-residential security guard services, and building operations.”
Drivers, IT workers, accountants, handymen, secretaries.
Putin’s decision implies that many of them will lose their jobs as the State Department goes through a painful triage process before the Sept. 1 deadline.
As I noted in an earlier piece, the Kremlin often denies access to its own market, whether to supermarket consumers or adoptable children, in order to strike back at the West. So limiting access to its labor market for the U.S. Embassy is not a total surprise. In fact, the Soviet Union imposed a total ban on its citizens working for the U.S. embassy in 1986, forcing embassy staff to moonlight as chauffeurs and mechanics. (There were questions about third country staff, like an Italian chef: “I see the pizza is as good as before,” said a Soviet official ominously at a reception in 1986. “Not everything is yet clear.”)
This will further hurt Russians: This will also likely force the U.S. Embassy and consulates to cut consular staff, including employees who process visa requests. The result of a further drawdown, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul predicted via tweet, was a slowdown in visa turnaround.
If these cuts are real, Russians should expect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to US. https://t.co/YbyWsUJNJS
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 30, 2017
It can already take weeks, or months, just to get an interview date for the visa process.
My nearest available interview date when I applied 2 weeks prior to travel was a week after my planned return date.
— Alexey Kovalev (@Alexey__Kovalev) July 30, 2017
Interestingly, U.S. Mission Russia used to be far larger. According to the 2007 report, it employed at least 1,779 people, including 1,251 Foreign National Staff. (“The Ambassador is determined to streamline a mission that has grown too large,” the 2007 report reads). Apparently, he was successful. Hundreds of the additional foreign employees worked in Diplomatic and Consular Programs and in Consular Affairs, the departments that handle visas, among other tasks. USAID, which employed 99 people in 2007, was expelled by the Russian government in 2013.
Many employees don’t work for the State Department: U.S. Mission Russia represents 35 agencies, or at least it did in 2013.
While the Department of State employed 1,043 of the 1,279 U.S. Mission Russia employees, and will likely suffer most from the cuts, other departments would be expected to take a hit, too.
- The Department of Defense, which had 26 employees working for the Defense Intelligence Agency and another 10 working for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which combats nuclear proliferation and other threats from weapons of mass destruction.
- Trade representatives includes 17 employees from the Department of Agriculture and 31 employees of the Department of Commerce.
- Representatives from U.S. law enforcement agencies (four F.B.I. employees and six D.E.A. employees).
- NASA has 12 employees, likely including support staff for astronauts on the International Space Station or those hitching a ride on Russian Soyuz rockets.
- Three employees were tasked to the Sochi Olympics, and are likely gone.
- The Library of Congress has two American and two foreign staff, and the Department of Transportation has one American and one foreign staff.
It doesn’t look like many of these 1,200 employees are construction workers: The U.S. Embassy in Moscow is building a $280 million annex to “replace inadequate consular facilities,” according to the 2013 report. In background discussions with the Washington Post, some U.S. officials have suggested that the large number of Mission Russia employees may be contractors and other workers tied to that construction, and that the employment cut could be an attempt to scuttle the construction.
That doesn’t appear to be the case. The State Department has two U.S. citizens and eight foreign nationals working for the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, likely linked to the annex’s construction. But otherwise, the amount of staff at Mission Russia has remained stable for the last five years, and declined considerably since 2007 (from 1,779 in 2007 to 1,279 in 2013). More data would confirm this, but if U.S. Mission Russia employed about 1,200 people in 2013 before construction began, and employs about 1,200 people now, it would not seem many are tied to the embassy expansion.
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