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U.S. suspends visa services at Russian consulates, Moscow says it won't retaliate against American travelers

In response to recent Kremlin sanctions drastically reducing America’s diplomatic presence in Russia, the U.S. embassy in Moscow announced on Monday that non-immigrant visas will no longer be issued in the three U.S. consulates across the country, beginning on August 23. As of September 1, the only place Russians will be able to interview for U.S. visas will be the embassy in Moscow.

Effective immediately, interviews are no longer available at the U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok. America’s consulates in Russia will now offer services only to American citizens.

With U.S. officials ceasing all visa activities at its consulates, the time it takes to process Russians’ visa applications will grow considerably. In 2016, the U.S. embassy in Moscow issued more than 136,660 non-immigrant visas to Russians. Another 50,000 such visas were issued by America’s three Russian consulates. According to Irina Tyurina, the spokesperson for the Russian Tourism Industry Union, “It’s likely that the wait time will stretch to six months.”

U.S. officials will prioritize visa applications from Russians seeking medical treatment or funeral services. “Other application categories will be reviewed to the extent possible, depending on staff availability,” the U.S. embassy's website states.

Previously, Russians were able to apply for U.S. visas at any American consulate, regardless of where they lived in the country. “For example, Muscovites often applied in St. Petersburg, where the lines were always shorter, and you could register quicker,” Tyurina explains. “In Moscow currently, the wait is already stretched to November, but with the new restrictions announced, the next available interviews might now be only next year.”

The new cutbacks will have a particularly profound effect on people living in Russia’s Far East. Without visa services available at the U.S. consulate in Vladivostok, tourism professionals say the number of Far East Russians traveling to the United States will plummet.

Commenting on the U.S. visa services cutbacks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Monday, “I can say just one thing at this point: we’re not going to take this out on American citizens,” promising not to retaliate by cutting the visas services offered to U.S. citizens by Russian consulates in America.

“So if someone was hoping that this destructive act would be contagious, they miscalculated,” Lavrov added. The foreign minister argued that the “real reason” for the visa services cutbacks is to “incite discontent among citizens with Russia's leadership,” characterizing the U.S. policy shift as a form of political meddling.

On December 29, 2016, the United States imposed sanctions on Russia for Moscow’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election. Washington expelled 35 Russian diplomats, accusing them of playing a role in Russia’s supposed meddling. Two embassy properties were also closed down and seized by American officials.

In late July 2017, following another round of U.S. sanctions against Russia, Moscow ordered the United States to reduce the number of its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia to 455 people — the same number of people currently working at Russia’s diplomatic facilities in the U.S. According to Russian officials, this led to the dismissal of more than 700 staff.

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