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Antonov, a former deputy defense minister who has been sanctioned by the European Union for his role in Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014, will come to Washington with a reputation as a hardline negotiator. He is best known to American officials from his time fronting Russia's negotiations at arms control talks with the Obama administration, which in 2009 produced a treaty renewing U.S. and Russian commitments to cut their nuclear arsenals. From 2011 until last December he also served as a reliable defender of the Kremlin's positions on the Ukraine crisis.
He arrives amid bleak relations between the U.S. and Russia, with his appointment announced on the same day that the U.S. embassy in Moscow said it was suspending all non-immigrant visa processing for Russians until Sept. 1 in response to staff cuts ordered by the Kremlin.
In a statement on its site, the embassy said operations for all visas applications in Moscow will resume after Sept. 1 but that they will remain suspended indefinitely at the three U.S. consulates elsewhere in the country.
The embassy statement says the step is necessary “due to the Russian government-imposed cap on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded to the announcement today during a press conference, saying, "I think a political factor is obvious to everyone here.” He said he had “just familiarized” himself with the decision and that “we will certainly look into it."
"As for our countermeasures, as I've said, we should take a closer look at the decisions that the Americans have announced today,” Lavrov said. “We'll see. I can only say one thing: We won't take it out on American citizens.”
He added: "That is, if someone hoped that a bad example would be contagious in this case, they are mistaken.”
On July 28 Russia ordered the U.S. embassy to cut its staff by 755 in retaliation for the U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow by Congress. The State Department hasn’t confirmed the numbers, but it’s believed that the embassy employs around 1,300 people; however, only around 400 employees are American. U.S. officials have said the cuts would fall primarily on Russian local hires and that this would almost certainly affect visa operations at the embassy.