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Tillerson Sets Deadline For Response To Moscow’s Expulsion Of US Diplomats

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday the Trump administration will respond by Sept. 1 to Moscow’s demand that hundreds of diplomats leave the U.S. mission to Russia.

Following a meeting with his Russian counterpart in the Philippines, Tillerson explained he will ask “clarifying questions” about the Kremlin’s demands, which were announced in July after Congress passed a bill imposing fresh sanctions on Russia.

The Russian foreign ministry has told the State Department that it must cut its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 people to a total of 455, a number equal to the Russian diplomatic corps in the U.S. Over half of the personnel working for the U.S. mission in Russia are local hires, so it remains unclear how many Americans will eventually be sent home.

The U.S. sanctions bill and Russia’s retaliation appear to have worsened already poor bilateral relations, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that Moscow still sees room for engagement on several issues of mutual concern, reports the Associated Press. Tillerson appeared to agree, pointing to recent cooperation between Washington and Moscow on a ceasefire agreement in Syria and sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear missile program.

“I don’t think it is useful to just cut everything off on one single issue,” Tillerson told reporters following a meeting with Lavrov. “These are two very large countries, and we should find places that we can work together. Let’s try to work together. Places we have our differences, we’re going to have to continue to find a way to address those.”

The Trump administration has argued that greater cooperation with Russia is needed to solve the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, among other global hotspots where Washington and Moscow have butted heads. That conciliatory approach has drawn bipartisan rebuke from lawmakers, who claim Trump is too eager to make concessions to a dangerous adversary. In order to rein in the administration, Congress included a provision blocking Trump from unilaterally lifting sanctions against Moscow in its recent sanctions bill.

Tillerson said Monday that he discussed Moscow’s threat to expel U.S. diplomats with Lavrov but has not yet determined an official response to the demands.

“I told the foreign minister we had not made a decision regarding how we will respond to Russia’s request to remove U.S. diplomatic personnel,” he said.

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