Russia has banned the entry into the country of eight officials from European Union member nations to retaliate against “illegitimate” EU sanctions imposed on Russian citizens.
"The European Union continues to pursue its policy of illegitimate, unilateral restrictive measures against Russian citizens and organizations," Russia's foreign ministry declared in a Friday statement.
According to the statement, those banned included Vera Jourova, vice president for values and transparency at the executive European Commission, David Sassoli, the president of the European parliament, and Jacques Maire, a member of the French delegation at the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly.
Russia also barred three officials from the Baltic states, namely Ivars Abolins, chairman of Latvia's National Electronic Media Council, Maris Baltins, director of the Latvian State Language Center, and Ilmar Tomusk, head of Estonia's Language Inspectorate.
Additionally, it imposed the entry ban on Berlin's Public Prosecutor Jorg Raupach and the Swedish Defense Research Agency’s Asa Scott.
The foreign ministry statement blamed the EU bloc of nations for "openly and deliberately" undermining the independence of Moscow’s domestic and foreign policy.
The EU imposed sanctions in March against two Russians in the southern Russian region of Chechnya. It also imposed sanctions on four senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin.
Reacting to Russia’s retaliatory measure, Sassoli along with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council Chief Charles Michel issued a joint statement censuring the tit-for-tat move as "unacceptable" action in "the strongest possible terms".
"The EU reserves the right to take appropriate measures in response to the Russian authorities’ decision," the statement added without elaborating on potential moves.
Moscow decries US halt of visa services
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Moscow said it was cutting staff and will stop issuing visas to most Russian citizens, prompting the Kremlin to accuse Washington of fuelling tension with “unfriendly actions.”
The embassy said it was slashing its consular staff by 75 percent and that effective May 12 it would halt processing non-immigrant visas for non-diplomatic travel, blaming the move on a new Russian law that limited the number of local employees at foreign diplomatic missions in the country.
"We regret that the actions of the Russian government have forced us to reduce our consular work force by 75%," the embassy declared in a statement.
"Effective May 12, US Embassy Moscow will reduce consular services offered to include only emergency US citizen services and a very limited number of age-out and life or death emergency immigrant visas."
That means Russians will have to travel to third countries to apply for US visas.
The Russian foreign ministry said the US diplomatic staff quota in Russia stood at 455, and that there were only 280 accredited American staff in the country, giving Washington plenty of space to fill up staff numbers.
The ministry also said that Russian consulates across the US were still issuing visas within 10 days despite suffering diplomatic cutbacks themselves.
When Putin signed the law limiting local staff employed at diplomatic missions last week, he also told the government to draw up a list of "unfriendly" states to be subject to the restrictions.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a press briefing on Friday that US embassy's decision would have little practical impact since Russians had already been struggling to obtain US visas.
"You know, here one has to look at the root cause of the tense situation that is developing in our bilateral relations," Peskov underlined. "If you unravel the knot of unfriendly steps in the opposite direction, then it becomes obvious that the precursor to all of this is the unfriendly actions of the United States."
He added that Moscow had "expected better" from the first 100 days of Joe Biden's US presidency.
Peskov said while Russia welcomed Washington’s moves to extend the New START nuclear arms treaty, "this positive baggage is still small in comparison with the load of negativity that we have accumulated over these 100 days."
"This load unfortunately prevails."
Moscow and Washington have long disagreed over a range of issues, but ties further deteriorated after Biden publicly stated that he believed Putin was "a killer."
Washington imposed sanctions on Russia earlier this month for what it claimed as malign activity, including alleged interference in last year's US election, cyber hacking as well as "bullying" neighboring Ukraine.
Moscow retaliated by imposing sanctions against the US and has dismissed American criticism of its treatment of Western-backed blogger Alexei Navalny, who has been jailed on multiple legal charges.
Russia’s relations with a number of US-backed countries in central and eastern Europe have also deteriorated in recent weeks, leading to a series of diplomatic expulsions.
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