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Putin And Biden Agreed To Return Ambassadors To Washington And Moscow Posts

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At the U.S.-Russia summit this week, Presidents Putin and Biden agreed on one small, practical step to restore normal relations. They are sending their ambassadors back to Moscow and Washington. But there's a long way to go to have functioning embassies, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Years of tit-for-tat expulsions have taken a toll on the U.S. and Russian embassies. The U.S. no longer has any fully operational consulates outside of Moscow and is under pressure to fire all of its locally hired staff. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan says it was one of the issues Biden raised with Putin at their summit in Geneva.

JAKE SULLIVAN: President Biden made the point that we each need effectively functioning diplomatic missions in our respective capitals in order to manage this relationship.

KELEMEN: Sullivan says Putin was forward-leaning on this. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the two presidents did agree that these problems must be resolved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEI LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: That's possible only if the two sides take synchronized and proportionate steps, Lavrov told reporters today. He suggested that the Obama administration started this by seizing six Russian diplomatic properties back in 2016. That was after the U.S. accused Russia of interfering in its elections and using those properties to spy. John Tefft, who was U.S. ambassador in Moscow at the time, says there were problems before that.

JOHN TEFFT: It didn't just start in 2016. During my time as ambassador there, as you know, we had unbelievable amounts of harassment to the point that I think most people felt that they haven't seen that since sometime back in the Cold War.

KELEMEN: Tefft says then-Secretary of State John Kerry raised it at the highest levels.

TEFFT: The only way to get any kind of results at all was to go actually to Putin himself to try to get decisions done and to rein in some of the more extreme people.

KELEMEN: But the downward spiral continued. The U.S. shut down Russia's consulate in San Francisco. Russia shut down the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg and on and on. This trend worries Dan Russel, a former U.S. diplomat who now runs the U.S. Russia Business Council, which promotes trade and investment.

DAN RUSSEL: These diplomatic missions are a key part of the glue to hopefully try to get to a better place where the two societies have freer exchanges and there's more mutual understanding in the future.

KELEMEN: Russel says tourists, students, businesspeople all need visas, so they need working embassies and consulates in both countries. But the consulate that he once ran in Yekaterinburg is currently not issuing visas, all operations at the consulate in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East remain suspended, and the embassy in Moscow has limited services. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDISH GAMBINO SONG, "REDBONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.