(Vatican Radio) The U.S. State Department has condemned Moscow's decision to expel 755 American diplomats from Russia in retaliation for new sanctions. Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed the move Sunday, while U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Estonia as part of a tour to reassure Eastern European allies who are concerned about Russian military activities.
Listen to Stefan Bos' report:
The U.S. State Department called Russia's decision "a regrettable and uncalled for act." Putin told Russian television that the U.S. would have to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by some 60 percent by September 1.
He made clear that the measure was in response to new sanctions approved by the U.S. Congress and sent to U.S. President Donald Trump to be signed into law. "More than a thousand people both diplomatic and technical staff are currently working in Russia," he said, adding that "755 of them will have to stop their activities and that is painful."
It is thought to be the largest expulsion of diplomats from any country in modern history.
Putin said the retaliation is necessary because of the sanctions. "America has taken a step to jeopardize U.S.-Russia relations. And the important thing is that step wasn't triggered by anything. This is a move is to impose illegal restrictions to attempt to influence other countries including U.S. allies which are interested in developing ties with Russia," he said.
WAITING LONG TIME
"We have been waiting for quite a long time so that maybe something would change for the better. We had hope that the situation would change. But it looks like, even if it does change then it won't be in the near future. I decided that it is time for us to show that we will not leave anything unanswered," Putin explained.
The sanctions hit President Putin and the oligarchs close to him by targeting Russian corruption, human rights abuses, and vital sectors of the Russian economy, including weapons sales and energy exports.
Russia's retaliation came while U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived Sunday in Estonia for meetings with the leaders of three Baltic nations in northeastern Europe, the first stop of a four-day European tour.
The vice president and his wife, Karen Pence, arrived in the Estonian capital Tallinn to begin the European trip that also includes stops in Georgia and Montenegro.
Pence was scheduled to meet with the presidents of the Baltics - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania - on Monday.
MUTUAL DEFENSE IMPORTANT
He made clear that Washington remains committed to the mutual defense of NATO allies, an important issue for the former Soviet republics that border Russia as they have expressed concern about Russian military activities in the region. "President Trump sent me to eastern Europe with a very simple message — that is that 'America First' doesn't mean 'America Alone,'" Pence explained after arriving in Estonia.
"Our message to the Baltic states, my message when we visit Georgia and Montenegro will be the same," he said.
"To our allies here in Eastern Europe [I say], we are with you, we stand with you on behalf of freedom," he continued. "It's a great honor for me to be here."
He was expected to also convey that message during his talks with leaders of Montenegro and Georgia, where U.S. and Georgian forces are currently holding their largest-ever joint military exercises.