The US ambassador in Moscow has said he will head home for consultations – a move that comes after the Kremlin prodded him to take a break after Washington and Moscow traded sanctions.
Ambassador John Sullivan said in a statement that he is returning to the United States this week to discuss US-Russian ties with members of President Joe Biden’s administration.
He emphasised that he would come back to Moscow within weeks.
“I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia,” Mr Sullivan said in a statement issued by the embassy.
“Also, I have not seen my family in well over a year, and that is another important reason for me to return home for a visit.”
Mr Sullivan’s departure comes after Russia on Friday stopped short of asking him to leave the country, but said it “suggested” that he follows the example of the Russian ambassador to Washington, who was recalled for consultations last month after Mr Biden’s description of President Vladimir Putin as a “killer”.
Russia has set no time frame for Anatoly Antonov’s return to Washington.
Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the ambassadors’ departures reflect current tensions in the relationship between the United States and Russia.
“The relations now have hit the bottom,” Mr Peskov said.
“There are certain consequences of the unfriendly measures taken against our country and the retaliatory measures taken by us.”
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2020 US presidential election and involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies – activities Moscow has denied.
The US ordered 10 Russian diplomats expelled, targeted dozens of companies and people and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money.
Russia denounced the US move as “absolutely unfriendly and unprovoked” and retaliated by ordering 10 US diplomats to leave, blacklisting eight current and former US officials and tightening requirements for the US embassy operations.
While ordering the sanctions, Mr Biden also called for de-escalating tensions and held the door open for co-operation with Russia in certain areas.
Russia said it was studying the offer.
“I will return to Moscow in the coming weeks before any meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin,” Mr Sullivan said in Tuesday’s statement.
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said that “we are in the very beginning of analysing the situation” regarding Mr Biden’s summit proposal and no specifics have been discussed yet.
“A big question is what course the US will take,” Mr Ryabkov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.
While the new US sanctions further limited Russia’s ability to borrow money by banning US financial institutions from buying Russian government bonds directly from state institutions, they did not target the secondary market.
The Biden administration held the door open for more hard-hitting moves if need be.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy expert, said while the Kremlin’s advice to Mr Sullivan to leave for consultations stopped short of expulsion, it reflected Moscow’s dismay about the new sanctions.
“If the political contacts have been reduced to zero, and economic ties never were close enough, why have so many people in the embassies?” Mr Lukyanov said in a commentary.
He predicted that ties will continue to deteriorate despite Mr Biden’s offer to hold a summit.
“During the past Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States at least shared a certain mutual respect and a recognition of each other’s political legitimacy, and it’s no longer the case,” Mr Lukyanov observed.
“Each party sees the other as heading towards decay and lacking the moral and political right to behave as it does.”