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US-Russia Dispute Over Seized Compounds Remains Unresolved

  • Cindy Saine

FILE - An entrance to the grounds of a riverfront compound near Centreville, Maryland, that has been used by Russian diplomats for years is blocked to reporters by State Department personnel, Dec. 29, 2016.

Russia says it reserves the right to retaliate in a dispute with the U.S. over the Obama administration's seizure of two Russian compounds last December.

Before leaving office, then-President Barack Obama also expelled 35 Russian diplomats, accusing them of spying. He said the actions were aimed at punishing Moscow for having interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Now, six months later, Russia says it's running out of patience with the Trump administration over the return of the compounds, and the State Department is being tight-lipped about negotiations with Russian officials.

Russia says the picturesque Russian compounds in Maryland and New York state are dachas, used strictly for recreation. But U.S. intelligence agencies say they were used for surveillance until they were seized.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, right, arrive at the State Department in Washington, July 17, 2017, for talks with Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, right, arrive at the State Department in Washington, July 17, 2017, for talks with Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon.

Session at State Department

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met Monday at the State Department with U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon. Caught by reporters as he was leaving, Ryabkov was asked whether Russia was close to getting its compounds back. He replied, "Almost."

Pressed by reporters at Tuesday's State Department briefing, spokeswoman Heather Nauert refused to comment on the status of negotiations or to say whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson favored giving the compounds back to Russia under certain conditions.

"I wouldn't characterize it that way," she said, adding that "the priority here is to get the United States and Russia to a place where they could have a good, decent, solid relationship so we can work together on areas of mutual cooperation. ... One of them is Syria."

Nauert said the talks with Moscow would continue.

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017, most likely expected the Trump administration would return Russian compounds seized by the previous U.S. administration, veteran diplomat John Herbst says.
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017, most likely expected the Trump administration would return Russian compounds seized by the previous U.S. administration, veteran diplomat John Herbst says.

Russian threats

After Monday's talks, Russia was still threatening to retaliate in kind. Ambassador John Herbst, a veteran U.S. diplomat now with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, told VOA this was standard procedure.

"This fits standard Soviet and then Russian diplomatic practice," he said. "When we catch their spies and then expel them, they immediately expel the same number of American diplomats. So they never acknowledge their culpability. When we take steps to deal with egregious actions on their part, they always take countersteps. It is simply the way they do business."

Herbst said it was unusual that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not retaliate in kind after the compounds were seized and its diplomats were expelled, saying Putin most likely expected the Trump administration would give the compounds back. Asked how the Kremlin might respond if its patience wore thin, Herbst said there were several options.

Closures in Russia

"Well, we also have dachas, or at least had a single dacha in Russia," he said. "Conceivably, they could take that away. I remember when Obama took these steps, there was speculation that they were going to close down the major school used by our embassy's children. That would be very nasty indeed. And I would hope and expect that that would prompt a very strong reaction by us if they were to do that."

The dispute over the compounds comes at a politically sensitive time as reports emerge of a previously undisclosed high-level meeting between Russians and top members of the Trump campaign last June.

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