Maria Zakharova, Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, has stated that the United States is committing genocide against Russians by slowing down the process by which Russian applicants obtain travel visas to the United States.

On August 2, 2017, President Trump signed into law a bill which increased sanctions on Russia, in addition to imposing sanctions on Iran and North Korea. The Russia-related provisions of the bill will diminish Trump’s ability to cancel existing sanctions against Russia; this measure was necessary due to bipartisan concern about President Trump’s willingness to undermine US policy towards Russia. Before Trump had even signed the bill, which had overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, the Russian Federation responded by ordering the United States to reduce diplomatic mission staff in Russia by 755 employees; many of those employees are Russian citizens who are performing technical or administrative functions. Predictably, as a result of the expulsion, it has become more difficult for the remaining US staff to carry out basic functions, such as processing visa applications. Thus, in a practical sense, Russia shot itself in the foot with its countersanctions, but as anticipated by observers who are familiar with Russia’s hybrid warfare methods, the Russian Foreign Ministry has taken advantage of the predictable visa issuance difficulties to portray the United States government as being hostile to ordinary Russians.

Speaking to Dozhd’s Anton Zhelnov on August 28, 2017, Zakharova explained that Russians should not expect a thaw in relations between the United States and Russia. Zakharova stated:

The sanctions started in 2012: sanctions lists, blacklists, and so on (Ed: Zakharova appears to be referring to the Magnitsky Act, although the Magnitsky sanctions were accompanied by the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which had been in place since 1974)…

In all, over the course of the last few years, the United States had a total of around 40 sanctions-related decisions –35, 36… around 40 decisions were taken on different levels, on the imposition of sanctions. These imposed limits on our companies, on specific individuals… various limitations.

Zakharova states that regardless of circumstances surrounding sanctions, Russia was always ready to solve mutual problems and “move forward” in its relations with the US. Zakharova mentions Obama’s name in the context of these worsening relations, in spite of the fact that the Obama administration had opposed the Magnitsky Act, imposed only weak, largely symbolic sanctions after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea (more serious sanctions were imposed after Russia had shot down MH17 over Ukraine’s Donetsk region), and refused to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine. Obama has been one of Russia’s favorite boogeymen since 2014, for the purpose of creating a “siege mentality” among the Russian public (“84 percent [of Russians polled by Levada] believe Russia is surrounded by enemies, while only 8 percent agree with the opposite.”).

Zakharova (2:18): The latest, most loud, spit in our direction was in December, when Russian diplomats were expelled. This was demonstrative. This was done around the New Year…

Zhelnov (2:33): So this is what we’ve responded to, right? Those winter sanctions by Obama.

Zakharova (2:45): We gave them half a year, with the understanding that there’s a new administration, which has to sort out what’s going on in its own house.

Zhelnov (2:50): They couldn’t sort it out, and you responded…

Zhelnov (2:54): There were, prior to the decision, several rounds of discussion, the question was raised at the meetings between Lavrov and Tillerson, at the level of embassies, the State Department, and so on. We tried to resolve the question, but everything was blocked from the American side.

Zhelnov (4:07) asks Zakharova if there will be a reaction to the more recent round of sanctions, as opposed to the “winter” sanctions. Zakharova responds that the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Ryabkov, stated that response measures are being worked out, and that Russia feels that a response is necessary. She is unable to provide greater detail, due to the ongoing discussions about the possible response.

Zakharova (4:35): Concerning the visas, and the horror that the Americans have created with the visas, there will not be any response, because – you say it correctly – this is already some kind of genocide of ordinary people.

“Что касается виз и того ужаса, который американцы устроили с визами, то никакого ответа не будет, потому что – вы правильно говорите – это уже какой-то геноцид обычных людей”, – сказала она.

Zakharova’s words were not chosen haphazardly – they echo the May 11, 2017 statement of Aleksey Meshkov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation:

If we’re discussing the visa business, then the main problem, is the anti-Crimean visa genocide, the prohibition of the issuance of visas to the population of a region…

While Russia refuses to recognize genocides committed by Russia and the Soviet Union, such as the Holodomor (starvation of Ukrainian farmers, ordered by Stalin), and has made tremendous effort to prevent other nations from officially recognizing these genocides, Russia has never hesitated to accuse other nations of genocide for the purposes of propaganda. For example, at the initial stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russia attempted to pressure the international community to hinder Ukraine from defending itself (and to deflect blame for the invasion from Russia), by accusing Ukraine of genocide against Russian-speaking residents of that region; there was no clear explanation on how Ukraine was allegedly targeting Russian speakers and not Ukrainian speakers in Donbas, and why Ukraine would attack Russian speakers in Donbas, as opposed to say, Kiev, which is a Russian-speaking city.

Zakharova states (4:57) that the United States started to present difficulties in visa processing “long before [the Russian MFA] voiced its decision – keep in mind, that it wasn’t a decision, but a suggestion, to the American side – and it was the American side which made the decision to cut its staff. This was absolutely not Russia’s demand. We made a suggestion. They did what they did.” Zakharova states that the duration of the visa process was increased from 10 to 50 days, about four or five months ago.

Zakharova’s statement that Russia only “suggested” that the US reduce its staff is contradicted by the language of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s (MID RF) press releases, which speak of a Russian “demand” to reduce staff (MID RF, August 22, 2017):

Our US colleagues claim that meeting our demand to restore parity in terms of the number of employees of the Russian and American foreign missions hinders the normal performance of consular functions, but the reality is that Washington is actually pursuing completely different goals. The goal is obvious − to try to provoke the discontent of Russian citizens with the difficulties purportedly caused by the staff reduction of US diplomatic and consular missions.

Press Release, MID RF, July 28, 2017:

On July 28, the United States Ambassador to Russia John Tefft was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry, where he was handed the Foreign Ministry’s statement concerning Moscow’s decision with regard to the staff and facilities of US diplomatic missions, along with the relevant diplomatic notifications.

The MID RF statement from July 28th, 2017, intially uses the term “suggest,” yet tells the United States that it “must” reduce its staff.

Therefore, we suggest that our American counterparts bring the number of diplomatic and technical staff at the US Embassy in Moscow, the consulates general in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, into strict correspondence with the number of Russian diplomats and technical staff currently working in the United States, until September 1, 2017. This means that the total number of American diplomatic and consular office employees in the Russian Federation must be reduced to 455 people.

Zakharova states that following diplomatic expulsions, such as the expulsion of Russian staff from the United States in December 2016, it’s typical, after some time, for the expelled staff to be replaced – the reasons for the expulsion are typically specific to the individuals expelled, and thus, those individuals may be replaced by other staff. Zakharova states that the United States has not permitted Russia to replace the diplomatic staff who were expelled in December 2016, and in doing so, according to Zakharova, initiated the “unprecedented” process of cutting diplomatic staff between the two countries. She claims that at the current time, the visa process takes around 80 days.

Zhelnov (9:05): How should Russian citizens react, what should they think about this situation?

Zakharova (9:10): I think that this is a targeted strike against Russian citizens, by the United States of America.

As mentioned, Zakharova’s response is an attempt to convince the Russian public that the United States is hostile to the Russian people. It is also a tacit acknowledgment that Russia’s countersanctions have backfired – while the countersanctions are unlikely to influence US policy on Russia in the near term, they have stirred US public ire against Russia, and have put pressure on Russia-supported US President Donald Trump, who has been criticized by the US public for not speaking out against the countersanctions. In Russia, certain elements of the Russia’s leadership, have experienced a backlash due to the impact that the countersanctions have had on the visa issuance process. Zakharchenko is attempting to absolve the Russian leadership of the blame for the undesirable effects of the sanctions, which, in addition to hindering ordinary Russians, pose a nuisance for Russia’s elite class, many of whom frequently travel to United States.

The timid Russian countersanctions, and Zakharova’s attempts to deflect the blame, reflect the relative weakness of the Russian government’s position relative to the United States. The recent United States sanctions bill, and the December 2016 expulsion of Russian diplomats and spies from the United States, have been forceful actions, to which Russia has not yet been able to find an effective countermeasure; Russia’s effect to counter these forceful measures has done more far more harm to Russia than it has to the United States. By accident, the United States has discovered that impeding Russians’ ability to travel exerts effective pressure on the Putin regime, suggesting a potentially fruitful avenue for future sanctions.