MOSCOW – Russia offered the U.S. on Tuesday to roll back several rounds of sanctions that have hampered the activities of their diplomatic missions, and they agreed to hold another round of talks to discuss a resolution to their diplomatic tug-of-war.
The Russian proposal was made during the talks between Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland and Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Nuland arrived in Moscow on Monday on a three-day visit for talks that the U.S. State Department said would touch on a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues.
The U.S. Embassy tweeted Nuland's description of her meetings as “constructive” but didn't give any details.
Ryabkov said he and Nuland made no progress on normalizing the work of their diplomatic missions, which has been hampered by multiple round of sanctions, adding that the situation could exacerbate even further, according to the Interfax news agency.
The Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated Moscow's readiness to respond in kind to any unfriendly U.S. actions and called for rolling back a slew of sanctions and restrictions on diplomatic missions.
“Any hostile anti-Russian action won’t be left unanswered, but Moscow doesn’t want any further escalation,” the ministry said. “We are offering to lift all the restrictions imposed by both parties over the past few years.”
It warned that the continuation of the “confrontational” U.S. policy toward Russia would further worsen ties and suggested taking a “realistic approach on the basis of equality and taking mutual interests into account."
Russia and the U.S. exchanged several rounds of diplomats expulsions and took other steps restricting the activities of their respective diplomatic missions over the past years as relations between Moscow and Washington sank to post-Cold War lows over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, its interference in U.S. elections, its hacking attacks and other irritants.
As part of trading diplomatic blows, Russia banned the U.S. Embassy from hiring local residents. The Embassy said the move forced it to reduce its consular workforce by 75% and cut most U.S. citizen services as well as non-immigrant visa processing for non-diplomatic travel.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said there was an “open discussion” at Nuland's meetings in Moscow, which he called “useful.”
“Our stance on the staffing of our mission remains firm,” he told reporters in Washington. “We expect parity on staffing numbers and we expect visa reciprocity. There must be fairness, there must be flexibility on the Russian side if we are to achieve an equitable agreement and that’s precisely what we are after.”
Price said the parties agreed to have another round of discussions, adding that “we hope that continued talks will bring to bear a resolution so that our mission in Moscow can resume its normal activity.”
“We do hope that those discussions can bear fruit because we do want open channels of communication with Moscow,” he added. "We do think that a fully staffed, or an adequately staffed, embassy in Moscow is important to our goal of having a free flow of information to manage responsibly the bilateral relationship with Moscow.”
Russia agreed to take Nuland off of its list of sanctioned U.S. officials to allow her visit, and the U.S. responded by issuing a visa to Konstantin Vorontsov, a Russian diplomat dealing with arms control issues, to let him attend this week’s meeting at the United Nations, Ryabkov said, according to the RIA-Novosti news agency.
Ryabkov said after Tuesday's meeting with Nuland that they touched on arms control negotiations and the situation in Afghanistan, among other subjects.
Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency that he stressed that “the U.S. and its allies bear the main responsibility among foreign actors for normalizing life in Afghanistan, since their presence actually led to the current situation.”
The Russian diplomat described the conversation as “direct and businesslike,” adding that he again emphasized Moscow's strong opposition to any U.S. presence in the former Soviet Central Asian nations following the American exit from Afghanistan.
On other issues, Ryabkov said he expressed Moscow’s concern about the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal between the U.S., the U.K and Australia, in view of the international nuclear non-proliferation agreements.
The U.S. and its allies hoped to negotiate basing agreements, overflight rights and increased intelligence-sharing with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which border Afghanistan or other ex-Soviet nations in Central Asia. But Russia, which has maintained close political, economic, security and military ties with the Central Asian countries, has bristled at any such U.S. presence.
The U.S. leased a base in Uzbekistan in the early stages of the war in Afghanistan until the country terminated it in 2005 amid tensions with Washington. The U.S. also used a base in Kyrgyzstan but that country asked the U.S. to leave in 2014 under pressure from Russia.
During her visit to Moscow, Nuland is also set to hold talks with Kremlin deputy chief of staff Dmitry Kozak, who acts as President Vladimir Putin's point person on Ukraine. The U.S. has strongly backed Ukraine in its standoff with Russia that followed Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for a separatist rebellion in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland.
Nuland on Tuesday also met with Russian participants in U.S. exchange programs, hailing their work as a testament to the value of educational and cultural connections between the two countries.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.