Lost in the swirl of American post-election chaos, culminating in the appalling storming of the U.S. Capitol, and the reported major Russian cyber hacks was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s notification to Congress on Dec. 10 about the State Department’s decision to close its remaining two consulates in Russia.
The U.S. Consulate General Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East (RFE) distantly located from Moscow, would be fully shuttered, while the other in centrally located Ekaterinburg, suspended. The cited staffing issues relate to the 2017 tit-for-tat downsizing of diplomatic personnel and missions in the U.S. and Russia, as well as related cost challenges.
To be clear: This is a unilateral U.S. decision.
It must be emphasized however, that while Moscow did not order our consulates closed, it went great lengths to limit embassy and consular manning and support which led to the State Department decision — gaining what Moscow likely really wants, while the Russian consulates in the U.S. — in Houston and New York — stay open.
Despite abysmal U.S.-Russia relations, this decision’s timing is problematic. Neither consulate should be closed — especially Vladivostok — without a chance for the incoming Biden administration to directly address key staffing, visa, and facility maintenance and safety support issues with the up-to-now obstructive Russians.
This perspective in no way exonerates Moscow from a wide range of malign actions, whether the recently reported major hacking of U.S. government and business entities, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, or a wide-range of Kremlin-driven adversarial actions worldwide. These actions are inexcusable and must continue to be firmly and proactively countered in coordination with like-minded nations. However, closing our consulates without the new administration’s review and validation is not our best course of action.
This is exactly when — not just during good relations — we should want to maintain U.S. representational “outposts” in key nations during troubled times as long as there are not direct physical threats to personnel. Public diplomacy remains crucial when very little other bilateral activity can take place, and it is best to engage the Russian public throughout Russia — not just in and around Moscow.
I have a long history with Russia dating back over three decades as private U.S. citizen, student, traveler, and during the challenging 2012-2014 timeframe as our senior military diplomat in Moscow. As such, I saw how both Americans and Russians benefitted from the scope of U.S. consular services, ranging from providing visa and emigration services for Russian citizens, aid for travelers, facilitating business travel and contacts, and providing support for official delegations.
These consulates exemplify U.S. cultural bridgeheads with direct access and relationships to local populations and officials. Functioning regardless of whether relations are good or challenged, their presence helps maintain practical contact with host nation populations, thereby helping to keep temperatures down in time of tensions and crisis. This is precisely why we should keep the Vladivostok and Ekaterinburg consulates open.
Vladivostok is of particular importance. Connected by the Trans-Siberian railway and home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, it is resource-rich Russia’s gateway to the Pacific. Nearby, along the Amur and Ussuri Rivers, is Russia’s vast 2,600-mile border with China, where border clashes broke out near Khabarovsk in 1969. Today relations are significantly better between these distinctly different behemoths with major trade and commerce along their immense boundary. Unprecedented joint Chinese-Russian military maneuvers took place in the greater region in 2018 and 2019.
To the south, just 80 miles away, is Russia’s border with complicated North Korea. Vladivostok also is a maritime terminus for travel through the Bering Strait bordering Alaska and into the widening Northern Sea Route (NSR), in a rapidly melting Arctic. Notably, Vladivostok is much closer to Anchorage and San Francisco than to distant Moscow, seven time zones away. Such distances make it hard to manage American interests in the RFE from U.S. Embassy Moscow.
As a post-military academic and analyst, I took an extensive trip along the wind-swept Amur and Ussuri as recently as November 2018. My itinerary took me to historic Khabarovsk, the unique Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzhan, and halfway to Mongolia, to the fascinating frontier town of Blagoveschensk; I was writing about Northeast Asian regional dynamics. Immensely helpful to me was the creative and talented U.S. Consul General in Vladivostok Michael Keays and his dedicated, mostly Russian, staff, who provided me invaluable contacts and advice for my trip. This enabled me to visit several Russian universities and institutes along my route to speak with local academicians and think-tankers who organized several lively sessions with Russian students, most of whom had never met an American in these remote regions. The consul’s well-connected team introduced me to Russian veterans and businessmen, international diplomats also serving in the RFE, and facilitated my travel with links to reliable drivers and train travel.
Throughout I was struck by the international diversity of the region, with numerous Chinese, South Korean, Japanese and Indians among many others working, studying and traveling, especially in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. It’s an arena in which we need to remain actively in the mix — especially if relations eventually improve.
I mention this because my experience was not the exception. All consulates provide variations of these services depending on political conditions and local safety. The Vladivostok Consulate, founded originally in 1874, and reopened in 1992 after the fall of the USSR, provides a wide range of services for Americans working, studying, and traveling through the region. It also provides vital continuity for U.S. business and markets (Exxon Mobil remains nearby in Russian Sakhalin). Once COVID-19 fades, and if somehow relations eventually improve between Washington and Moscow, enhanced RFE commerce with Alaska and the U.S. West coast could be positive, stabilizing drivers. The consulate’s operating cost is paltry for the access and services provided: about $3.2 million dollars.
While arguing the necessity for keeping consulates open within important regions, in the case of Russia, the new Biden foreign policy team should early-on re-address this Trump administration decision, as it develops its initial policy positions regarding a difficult, challenging Kremlin.