The Foreign Service Journal, March 2020

40 MARCH 2020 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL In Russia, as our government-to-government contacts dropped dramatically, we needed creative approaches to report on Russian politics and the economy, provide support for American citizens and companies in the country, and facilitate Russians’ travel to the United States. Washington needed direct information for policy formulation, and U.S. Mission Russia’s job was to deliver, regardless of the obstacles. As we approach the second anniversary of the March 29, 2018, expulsion of our diplomats, their story of grit, professional- ism and patriotism reminds us of the Foreign Service ethos and our direct contributions to the nation. Strike One: The Kremlin-Ordered Drawdown, 2017 Although the March 2018 expulsion of dozens of our Foreign Service members and their families received international media attention, the much larger, Kremlin-ordered staff reduction in July 2017 attracted less scrutiny. After receiving the order in late July, Ambassador John Tefft quickly gathered the country team to relay the bad news: We would have to identify and separate several hundred staff in less than 30 days. The ambassador called on all of us to handle this with discretion, sensitivity and dignity toward all staff members. To ensure that Mission Russia could continue to operate despite significant staffing cuts, then Deputy Chief of Mis- sion Anthony Godfrey (now U.S. ambassador in Belgrade) urged the leadership team to preserve institutional memory. Overnight, U.S. Mission Russia was transformed. Scores of American officers and their families had to leave the country in less than four weeks. Some received the news while away from post and could not return; others packed out, sold their homes and found their assignment rescinded with nowhere to go. The overwhelming impact of this first round of cuts, however, fell to our FSN staff. Many had served in the mission since the heady days of the early 1990s, when U.S.-Russian relations were full of hope and promise. These Russian colleagues would often recall meeting a U.S. president or a famous Americanmusician, or a much-admired former supervisor who attended their wedding. For many, working for U.S. Mission Russia was not just a job—it was a way of life. Now, single mothers, tandemFSN couples and veterans of more than 20 years faced loss of their livelihoods. Their service to the U.S. government severely complicated future job prospects, if not making thempractically unemployable. Hundreds of staff hours went into determining how to pre- serve core diplomatic and administrative function. But people came first, always. One on one, for weeks at a time, our officers explained to dedicated FSNs that we had to separate them, even though they had done nothing wrong. We did so with humanity and respect, showing these American values even in the tough- est of times. Many of the officers who had to fire American and Russian staff were also preparing themselves to leave. I vividly recall one of many separation meetings, where I delivered the bad news to a local staffer. His stoic response: “You know our history and our government. We know who did this. Thank you, but don’t worry. All will be fine.” For others who remained at post, the future was uncertain. But one thing was crystal clear: U.S. Mission Russia—and the mission—would continue. Strike Two: Persona Non Grata, 2018 As months passed, U.S. Mission Russia adjusted to the “new normal” of delivering on the bilateral relationship while remain- ing tremendously understaffed. Fortunately, the arrival of Ambassador Jon Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, buoyed our spirits and renewed our hope for improvement in bilateral rela- tions. Having served as chief of mission in Singapore and Beijing earlier in his career, Amb. Huntsman was clear-eyed about the challenges we faced. He spent a lot of time with staff, rebuilding morale and sharing his vision. Time and again, Huntsman would remind audiences: “Just because our staff was cut by nearly 70 percent does not mean our workload has gone down the same amount. Indeed, it has gone up.” That spring, news broke from the United Kingdom of an assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, a former FSB intelli- gence officer, and his daughter. For the first time since World War II, a military-grade chemical weapon had been used on civilians in Europe (a first responder was hurt in the attack and recovered; another British citizen died from incidental contact with the poison, novichok). To respond to this latest Russian perfidy, nearly 30 nations joined the United States in expelling more than 150 Russian diplo- mats around the world. As is the nature of diplomatic work, much of this was done quietly, without fanfare, but with steely purpose. As we watched the news unfold, we waited for the next shoe to drop; the Kremlin quickly noted it would respond “symmetrically.” Late on a Thursday evening, March 29, 2018, it got personal. A diplomatic note ordered the expulsion of 60 colleagues from As U.S.-Russia relations deteriorated, staff were caught up in the diplomatic conflict.