In Russia, Long Waits and Lost Fees as Understaffed Embassy Struggles

By Francesca Regalado

A letter was sent by email to Russians on the morning of August 23, 2017, setting off a mad scramble that inundated the U.S. Embassy in Moscow’s phone lines and visa application portal.

Anxious visa applicants consulted with one another in a forum hosted on a Russian travel website, sharing the messages they received from the U.S. Embassy. They sat for hours at their computers, waiting for appointments to become available on the embassy’s calendar. Some who used a phone stayed on hold for 40 minutes before an embassy representative could answer their call.

“I called the call center three times, but each time they said that they could not help,” said one distraught forum user. “As a result, my profile was banned for too many visits to the calendar.”

The Russian foreign ministry ordered the U.S. Embassy a month before the email to downsize its staff in Russia to 455, after the U.S. Senate passed an act imposing sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Over 700 American diplomats and staff were expelled, severely handicapping the four U.S. consulates in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok.

“As a result of the Russian government’s personnel cap imposed on the U.S. Mission, all nonimmigrant visa (NIV) operations across Russia have been suspended beginning August 23, 2017,” read the email sent to Russian visa applicants. More than a year later, the Department of State’s website estimates a wait time of 300 days for a nonimmigrant visa interview at the embassy in Moscow.

Yuliya Turasova, an accountant in Moscow, submitted her application for a B-2 tourist visa to the embassy on July 27, three days before President Vladimir V. Putin announced the expulsions. She had planned to spend Christmas in New York City.

Applicants like Turasova were instructed to reschedule their interview appointments, either online or by phone. But visa operations in each consulate except the embassy had been suspended, so Turasova was also competing for a slot with applicants hoping to redirect their appointments to Moscow from St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, or Vladivostok.

Those consulates in total issued 192,532 visas in 2017, with 71 percent adjudicated by the embassy in Moscow, according to the State Department’s nonimmigrant visa statistics.

“First they opened applications for September 2017 and every slot was taken in a day,” said Turasova in a phone interview. “As the nonrefundable fee is valid only for a year, people became anxious to lose it.”

Visa applicants pay a consular fee of $160, a steep price in Russia where the per capita income was only $10,743 in 2017. If applicants were unable to reschedule their interviews within a year, they would have to submit a new application and pay the consular fee again.

Some Russians working on a tighter schedule, such as those applying for student visas or traveling for medical reasons, decided to fly to a neighboring country and apply at a U.S. Embassy there, even though it meant submitting and paying for a new application.

Embassies in Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine announced on their websites that they were accepting visa applications from Russian citizens. The embassy in Minsk, overwhelmed with Belorussians who previously had the alternative of applying in Moscow, stopped accepting applications from foreigners who are not permanent residents in Belarus.

The embassies in Tbilisi and Astana, two of the most frequent destinations for desperate Russians, started designating one day each week to handle only Russian applicants. Astana, along with consular posts in Vilnius and Tashkent, issued nearly 6,000 more visas in 2017 from the year previous, according to the Department of State’s nonimmigrant visa statistics.

The diplomatic tit-for-tat that resulted in this backlog of visa applications began in December 2016, when President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Russian compounds for election interference. Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov reportedly persuaded President Putin not to retaliate, but Putin eventually did in July 2017 after Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Sixty more Russian diplomats were expelled by President Trump in March 2018, after the British government report found two Russian agents responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Soviet spy who had defected to the United Kingdom, and his daughter Yuliya, in the English town of Salisbury. Putin immediately expelled 60 American diplomats and ordered the closure of the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg in retaliation.

The St. Petersburg consulate issued 16 percent of visas in Russia in 2017, second only to Moscow.

“It is unfortunate we no longer have the necessary staff to meet the strong demand for U.S. visas among the Russian people,” the Department of State consular affairs bureau said in a statement. “It was not our decision to reduce the size of the U.S. Mission to Russia.”

Turasova said Russians did not blame the U.S. Embassy for their visa troubles.

“They were mostly upset with the Russian government and the sad situation in general when the whole world is open and your dream to travel is broken by some misunderstanding between politicians,” said Turasova.

“The staff in the embassy were only doing their job,” she added. “They studied long and hard to get these jobs but most of them had to come back to the U.S.”