MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian authorities on Wednesday took over a summer-house compound in Moscow leased by the U.S. embassy, five days after the Kremlin ordered Washington to slash its diplomatic presence in Russia.
In retaliation for new U.S. sanctions, President Vladimir Putin has ordered the United States to cut around 60 percent of its diplomatic staff in Russia by Sept. 1, and said Moscow would seize a dacha country villa used by U.S. embassy staff and a warehouse.
U.S. employees cleared out the dacha on Tuesday and a Reuters journalist who visited the property on Wednesday saw a large metal padlock securing the front gate.
The one-storey building and courtyard, previously used by diplomatic staff at weekends and to host embassy parties, was empty and cleared of barbecue equipment and garden furniture.
Two policemen in a car in front of the main entrance said they had been instructed to guard the property and did not expect any visits from U.S. or Russian officials.
“I don’t know when this situation will change,” one of the policemen said.
Maria Olson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy, had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters. She was quoted by Russia’s Interfax news agency as saying the embassy had retrieved all its possessions from the villa, and from the warehouse.
Putin said on Sunday Russia had ordered the United States to cut 755 of its 1,200 diplomatic staff in its embassy and consular operations, though many of those let go will be Russian citizens, with the United States allowed to choose who leaves.
The ultimatum issued by the Russian leader is a display to voters at home that he is prepared to stand up to Washington - but is also carefully calibrated to avoid directly affecting the U.S. investment he needs, or burning his bridges with U.S. President Donald Trump.
One local Russian employee at the embassy, who declined to be named when speaking to the media, said staff were still in the dark about their future employment.
“They say they will have to cut a lot of jobs – not just diplomats and technical staff, but also in the ancillary services, including drivers, janitors and cooks,” he said. “I hope I won’t be in trouble, but who knows.”
Reporting by Jack Stubbs and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Richard Balmforth