Protest against Alexei Navalny's imprisonment, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, Jan. 23, 2021 (Photo: Nick Mayorov)
Why it’s a bad idea to close US consulates in Russia

Withdrawing diplomats in response to bad behavior is self-defeating, particularly for the United States.

On January 23, massive demonstrations broke out across Russia, protesting the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Russian authorities detained Navalny upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a near-fatal poisoning. Outside Moscow, the largest protests erupted in the Russian Far East, where demonstrators fought back, braving frigid temperatures and beatings.

One of the Trump administration’s last foreign policy moves has jeopardized the U.S. ability to understand Russian society at this crucial moment. On December 19, the U.S. State Department announced that it was shutting down its two remaining consulates in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. This action leaves the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as the only place inside Russia representing American citizens and interests.

Closing U.S. consulates is not only a bad idea, it’s a self-defeating one. It hurts ordinary Americans and Russians and plays into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s preference for controlling information. If the closures go through, the United States and Russia find themselves back at square one, both sides having squandered all the potential progress of public diplomacy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is worth taking a moment to review the recent history of this consulate-closure tit-for-tat. U.S. officials have pointed the proverbial finger at Putin. But Washington started using the tactic and escalated the situation from there, no doubt much to Moscow’s glee.

After the U.S. Congress justifiably ordered the Trump administration to sanction Russia over meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign (such are the risks of international subterfuge), Putin halved the number of personnel the United States was allowed to employ inside Russia. While inconvenient, that’s where the matter should have stayed. Instead, the Trump administration seized the storied Russian consulate in San Francisco.

After Russian assassins poisoned ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March of 2018, the Americans responded by kicking out 60 Russian spies working under diplomatic cover in the United States. Fair enough. But then the Trump administration acted heedlessly: it ordered the Russian post in Seattle to halt operations. U.S. officials must have known what was coming: Putin not only expelled the requisite 60 American spies. He also shuttered the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg.

Ejecting diplomats is a time-honored signal of official displeasure in international relations. But it’s a tactic that hurts open societies like the United States more than places like Russia and China, where information is more monitored and restricted. And it not only hampers U.S. diplomats’ ability to understand their host countries and interlocutors — most of all, it harms regular citizens from both countries and hinders their attempts to get to know one another.

When Putin issued his personnel-cutting order, the first to go were local Russians — translators, secretaries, janitors — who ensured the smooth daily operation of the premises and whose livelihoods depended on it. When the consulates in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok close, the 10 American officials who worked there will be reassigned elsewhere, but the 33 Russians they employed will be out of work. The savings to the U.S. taxpayer will be a paltry $3.2 million a year.

Russia’s enormous size — stretching across 11 time zones — only magnifies the importance of consulates. In order to procure a visa, Russian citizens are still required to attend in-person interviews with U.S. consular officials. Russians in Siberia and the Far East will have to travel all the way to Moscow just to get permission to visit the United States. It takes almost the same amount of time to fly from Washington, D.C. to Moscow as it does to fly from Moscow to Vladivostok (about nine hours). People living in Siberia and the Russian Far East see things differently than Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is impossible to understand this huge, multiethnic society by peering out through the sound and light pollution of the Moscow metropole.

Consulates play an important role in facilitating positive interactions between Russians and Americans. Believe it or not, many Russians like aspects of American culture and want to know more about it. Public diplomacy officers at U.S. consulates do a great job of connecting American expats with local Russians.

The Vladivostok consulate has also fostered links between citizens in the Russian Far East and their closest American neighbors in Alaska. Consulates also provide institutional support for Americans living and traveling abroad, whether they be journalists, academics, or tourists. Consular officers can help when Americans get into legal trouble or are harassed by the police, as sometimes happens.

It is tough to be a U.S. diplomat in Russia — American officials are often followed, monitored, and harassed. Some have reportedly suffered microwave attacks that left them disoriented, sick, and even disabled. In addition to the staffing restrictions, the State Department cited safety concerns as the reason for closing the consulates.

But for the average American expat or tourist, life in Russia is relatively safe and can be rewarding. Having the institutional link provided by the consulates might place a burden on U.S. diplomats, but it makes life easier and safer for American citizens abroad. And American journalists and academic researchers provide a huge service by helping us understand Russia’s environment, society, history, and even how the Kremlin operates in the shadows.

Having lived in Vladivostok and researched the history of the city, I admittedly have a soft spot for that particular U.S. consulate and its work. But it’s also true that Vladivostok is in an important strategic spot, located near the Russian border with China and North Korea. On weekends, Chinese tourists flush with cash take bus tours into Vladivostok to shop. Throughout the city, North Koreans provide a significant portion of the manual labor, fixing roads and renovating apartments. Many Russians drive cars right off the boat from Japan, steering wheels on the right side of the car. If the United States wants to know what Russia is doing in East Asia, and what the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese are doing in Russia, it ought to stay.

President Biden and his team have vowed to be tougher on Russia. But Putin doesn’t care if the United States closes its consulates. A smaller U.S. diplomatic presence means that he has more control over his own citizens and over Americans living and working in Russia. By giving into Putin’s pressure and turning off the consulates’ lights, the United States is doing exactly what he wants.

Almost 100 years ago, on May 15, 1923, U.S. Consul General S. Pinkney Tuck lowered the Vladivostok consulate’s flag, departing for Japan the next day. Seventy years passed before Americans were allowed to return. If the consulates close again, Americans risk losing, for the foreseeable future, an important source of insight into Russia’s complexity. The Biden administration should retire this misguided and ineffective tactic.