Moscow: The United States began to sharply scale back its visa services in Russia on Monday, drawing an angry reaction from Moscow, three weeks after President Vladimir Putin ordered Washington to more than halve its embassy and consular staff.
The move, which will hit business travellers, tourists and students, was the latest in a series of bilateral measures that have driven relations to a new post-Cold War low, thwarting hopes on both sides that they might improve after President Donald Trump took office in January.
The U.S. embassy said it was suspending all non-immigrant visa operations across Russia on Wednesday and that when they resumed, on September 1, they would be offered "on a greatly reduced scale."
Beginning Monday, it would be cancelling an unspecified number of appointments and asking applicants to reschedule, it said in a statement. "Capacity for interviews in the future will be greatly reduced because we have had to greatly reduce our staffing levels to comply with the Russian government’s requirement," the embassy told applicants on its website.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. demarche looked like an attempt to provoke ill-feeling among ordinary Russians against the authorities.
"The American authors of these decisions have come up with another attempt to stir up discontent among Russian citizens about the actions of the Russian authorities," Lavrov told reporters.
"It's a well known logic ... and this is the logic of those who organise colour revolutions."
The phrase 'colour revolutions' refers to uprisings that have unseated pro-Moscow leaders in various countries of the former Soviet Union, an area that Russia regards as its sphere of influence, and which it accuses Washington of inciting.
Lavrov said the U.S. visa move had a "political overtone" and that Moscow would consider how best to respond.
The U.S. step means Russian citizens wanting to visit the United States for business, tourism or educational reasons will no longer be able to apply via U.S. consulates outside Moscow and will have to travel to the Russian capital instead.
That will pose a serious logistical challenge for many Russians, whose country, the world's largest by territory, stretches across 11 time zones. The United States has consulates in St Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg, where a Reuters reporter saw a man unsuccessfully pleading with staff to accept his visa documents a day early.
On hearing a refusal, the man, who declined to identify himself, erupted in anger.
The chain of tit-for-tat U.S. and Russian measures began last December when outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats over allegations Moscow had meddled in the U.S. presidential election, which it denied.
Putin refrained from retaliating at the time but last month, after Congress overwhelmingly approved new sanctions against Russia, he ordered Washington to cut its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia by 755 people, or about 60 per cent, by September 1.
Trump, who took office pledging better ties with Moscow, had promised to weigh a response.
The U.S. embassy in Russia said Moscow's decision to slash its staff called into question Russia’s sincerity about pursuing better relations.
U.S. Congressional committees and a special counsel are investigating the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia used hacking and other methods to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton in last November's election.
They are also looking into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian officials.
Moscow has repeatedly denied meddling in the election and Trump denies any campaign collusion.
Russia said earlier this month that the United States issued around 150,000 visas to Russian citizens last year.
The U.S. embassy signalled its new scaled-back visa regime could be in place for some time.
"We will operate at reduced capacity for as long as our staffing levels are reduced," it said.