The US embassy said it had no alternative but to cut visa services given the sharp reduction in embassy staff ordered by the Kremlin. Moscow accuses the US of trying to provoke Russians against their own government.
The US embassy in Moscow announced Monday a dramatic reduction in its visa services in response to Kremlin demands that the US reduce its diplomatic staff.
Beginning Wednesday there will be an eight-day suspension of non-immigrant visas from the embassy and its three consulates. They will resume issuing visas on September 1 but only from the embassy in Moscow.
Visa services from its consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg in the Urals, and Vladivostok in the far east will remain suspended indefinitely. The cuts are likely to affect thousands of Russians who visit the US every year for tourism, business, and academic programs.
Earlier this month the Kremlin ordered the US to slash its diplomatic work-force by nearly two-thirds - cutting 755 positions. The cuts will leave the US diplomatic staff at 455 in Russia - the same figure that Moscow has in the US.
The embassy has already begun cancelling appointments and asking applicants to reschedule.
"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," according to a statement from the embassy.
The staffing cuts were already slowing down the visa processing times. The wait time for visa appointments at the embassy in Moscow rose from 50 days to 70 days between August 2 and August 19.
The visa cuts are the latest in a tit-for-tat diplomatic row that began last year.
Russia's election interference
In December, after US intelligence agencies claimed that Russia had interfered in the US president election with the hope of getting Republican candidate Donald Trump elected, President Barack Obama ordered Russia to scale back its diplomatic staff in the US and closed two of its diplomatic buildings.
Russia didn't immediately respond, waiting to see if Trump would be able to strike a more conciliatory tone.
But last month the US congress voted overwhelmingly to ramp up sanctions against Russia for its interference in the US election - a charge Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed as "unfounded accusations." Moscow responded with the order for the US to cut its embassy staff.
The latest US response infuriated the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that it appeared the US was trying to provoke Russians against their government.
"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.
He said the US visa move had a "political overtone" and that Moscow would consider how best to respond.
bik/bk (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)