WASHINGTON - Russia demanded Monday that the United States return two compounds that were ordered closed last year after the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the U.S. closure of the properties in the eastern states of New York and Maryland "daylight robbery."
Then-U.S. President Barack Obama shut the compounds and expelled 35 Russian diplomats it accused of spying in December, less than a month before he left office, in response to the Russian election interference, a claim Moscow rejects.
Russia has refrained from a retaliatory response, but Lavrov said last week, "If Washington decides not to solve this issue, we will have to take counter actions," possibly by blocking use of a country house and storage facility used by U.S. Embassy personnel in Moscow.
There was political speculation in Washington that President Donald Trump would quickly return the compounds to Russia when he took office in late January, but he did not.
Trump now is in the midst of months of congressional and criminal investigations into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton and whether he obstructed justice with the firing back in May of then-FBI director James Comey, who was heading the agency's Russia investigation. Since then, another former FBI chief, Robert Mueller, has been named, over Trump's objections, to lead the criminal probe.
The issue of the closure of the two Russian compounds is on the agenda again in Washington on Monday, with a meeting between U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Lavrov, in a visit to Belarus, said that "anti-Russian feeling" in the U.S. makes it uncertain whether Moscow and Washington can agree to cooperate on world issues.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, "We consider it absolutely unacceptable to place conditions on the return of diplomatic property; we consider that it must be returned without any conditions and talking."
Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin, blamed by the U.S. intelligence community for personally ordering the U.S. election interference, "quite unambiguously" raised the issue of the closure of the compounds when he met with Trump at the recent G-20 summit in Germany.
The Kremlin spokesman said Russia still has hope that "our American colleagues will show political wisdom and political will" and return the properties to Russian use.