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Moscow-Washington deep freeze has everyday impact, raises nuke treaty worries

The Embassy of the United States (left) is seen in Moscow. (Mainichi)

MOSCOW -- Think tank researcher Oleg Khriporapov had an interview scheduled at the United States Embassy here in August last year, as part of the process to obtain a trainee visa. However, three days before his appointment, he was informed it had been delayed. He eventually had the interview about three weeks later, but when he arrived at the embassy he noticed there were very few staff or visa applicants.

Russia-U.S. antagonism has risen sharply over the past one to two years, primarily over suspicions Moscow attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. The increased tensions have manifested in rounds of diplomatic expulsions by both sides, and visa services for the many Russian citizens hoping to visit the U.S. have been particularly hard hit.

Last spring and summer, the U.S. issued an average of more than 10,000 tourist visas to Russians per month. Since the Russian government expelled a raft of American diplomats in summer 2017, however, the visa process at the U.S. Embassy has been clogged up, and visa issuances have dropped by about half.

Now, most Russians seeking U.S. visas apparently head to American embassies in the neighboring Baltic States or Ukraine. When the Russian assistant at the Mainichi Shimbun's Moscow Bureau office told a travel agency they were seeking a U.S. tourist visa, the agency said it was possible to get a visa interview at the American Embassy in Kiev the next week.

The lack of bilateral trust is causing problems at the everyday level, Khriporapov commented.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin begins his fourth term, recent events have been adding fuel to the country's rivalry with the United States. Among them are accusations of Russian government involvement in the attempted assassination in London of a former Russian intelligence officer and British spy, and U.S. sanctions targeting Russian aluminum makers, among other firms.

According to Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin, there is no chance of a Washington-Moscow rapprochement as long as Donald Trump is in the Oval Office, tainted as the U.S. administration is by suspicions his presidential campaign colluded with Russia.

Meanwhile, a Western diplomatic source suggested that the roots of the bilateral tension are deep indeed. Having emerged from the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is seeking to challenge the international order based on American security guarantees. That, the source said, is the stem of the present rivalry.

They added that if this tension continues, the current bilateral nuclear arms control framework could collapse. One indicator for the future of Moscow-Washington relations will be whether the two countries can sit down together to renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), set to expire in February 2021. So far, President Putin has proven unyielding in his challenge to the United States, as it remains to be seen if his administration will take a more flexible approach to the arms treaty.

(Japanese original by Hitoshi Omae, Moscow Bureau)

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