Moscow on Friday ordered the US to slash its number of diplomats in Russia and froze two embassy compounds in a pre-emptive strike against tough new sanctions being readied in Washington.
The US Senate on Thursday passed new bipartisan sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, sending the package to President Donald Trump, who must decide whether to accept the tough approach to the Kremlin or veto the measure.
The move drove yet another nail into hopes in Moscow that Trump\’s election might help improve ties that slumped to their lowest point since the Cold War over the Kremlin\’s meddling in Ukraine and alleged interference in the US election.
It has also upset some European nations fearful that it could hit their businesses, with Germany warning it would not accept sanctions that targeted companies involved with Russia\’s energy sector.
The Kremlin previously said it would hold off from responding until the sanctions became law but appeared to change tack after President Vladimir Putin insisted Thursday that he could not "endlessly tolerate this kind of insolence."
In a statement the Russian foreign ministry demanded the US cut its diplomatic presence in Russia by September to 455 — the same number Moscow has in the US — in a move sources said could force out hundreds of diplomats.
It also said it was barring the US embassy from using a Moscow summer house and storage facility in the city from August 1.
"The United States under the absolutely invented pretext of Russian interference in their internal affairs takes one grossly anti-Russian action another," it said.
The statement added that Moscow "reserves the right to carry out other measures that could affect the interests of the US."
The ministry said it summoned US Ambassador John Tefft to hand him the official note.
Tefft "expressed his strong disappointment and protest" at the development, a US embassy spokesperson told AFP, adding that "we have passed the notification back to Washington for review."
The spokesperson declined to comment on the current number of US diplomats and staff in Russia, but Russian wires cited "informed sources" saying hundreds of people would have to leave.
The punishment announced by Moscow closely resembled punitive measures inflicted by former President Barack Obama in December over an alleged Kremlin hacking and influence campaign to sway the 2016 US elections in favour of Trump.
Obama ordered out 35 Russian diplomats and shuttered two embassy summer houses that Washington said were being by Moscow to spy on the US.
At the time Putin made the surprise choice not to respond to the US move, saying that he was waiting to see how Trump handled the situation once he came to power.
Trump repeatedly insisted during his election campaign that he wanted to boost ties with Russia, sparking hope in the Kremlin for an improvement.
Moscow is already the subject of tough US sanctions over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and support for a bloody insurgency in the country.
But allegations from the US intelligence community that Putin interfered in the US elections to get Trump elected have made any concessions to Trump politically toxic.
The White House opposed the new sanctions package that curbs Trump\’s ability to lift the punishment, but the near-total support in the US Senate and House puts him in a major bind.
The sanctions are aimed at penalising the Kremlin further for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and Russia\’s annexation of Crimea.
Even if Trump decides to veto the bill it is likely that that Congress could muster enough votes to override him.