On July 17, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met with US Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon in Washington. It was the highest level meeting since the Russian and American presidents met at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7. The fate of the two compounds – the Russia’s properties in New York and Maryland – illegally seized by the Obama administration topped the agenda. It is quite frustrating that the issue was not resolved at the meeting. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement made on July 18, «Russia has the right to take retaliatory measures in accordance with the principle of reciprocity». The options include the seizure of two American government properties near Moscow – a compound in Serebryany Bor, and a warehouse in Biryulevo – and the expulsion of US diplomats involved in spying activities.
According to Sputnik, a senior White House official had said before the meeting that the Russian diplomatic compounds in the United States would be returned only under the condition that Washington receives something in return. Sputnik did not specify who the official was, but Sebastian Gorka, an adviser to US President Donald Trump, made comments to CNN on July 14 that appeared to link the compounds' return to Russia's position of Syria. Moscow believes it is simply unacceptable to put forward any preconditions while the seizure followed by the refusal to return the mansions has been seen as a «daylight robbery».
The compounds were arrested and 35 diplomats expelled upon the order of ex-President Obama in December, 2016. The pretext was Russia’s alleged involvement in hacking the 2016 US presidential election campaign, which has never been proven, despite all the investigations going on.
Back then, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided not to retaliate. On the contrary, he even invited US diplomats and their families to the New Year festivities in the Kremlin. The president opted to wait and see what action the Donald Trump administration would take. But everything has its limits and the time is running out.
«We still hope that our American colleagues will demonstrate a certain political wisdom and political will», Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters on July 17. The spokesman emphasized that the failure to hand back the compounds would breach international law.
US officials are not issuing visas to Russian diplomats to allow Moscow to replace the expelled employees and get its embassy back up to full strength. The number of staff at the US embassy in Moscow exceeds the number of Russian embassy employees in Washington by a big margin. One of the options, apart from a tit-for-tat expulsion of Americans, would be to even out the numbers.
It should be noted that the seizure of Russian compounds in Maryland and New York is a fragrant violation of the Vienna Convention, which establishes the immunity of a state and its property used for these purposes. Article 22 of the Convention states «The premises of a diplomatic mission, such as an embassy, are inviolable and must not be entered by the host country except by permission of the head of the mission. Furthermore, the host country must protect the mission from intrusion or damage. The host country must never search the premises, nor seize its documents or property. Article 30 extends this provision to the private residence of the diplomats».
The annual Intelligence Authorization Act requires the State Department to more rigorously enforce travel rules for Russian diplomats inside the United States. The law includes a requirement that the State Department work with the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to ensure that Russian diplomats notify the State Department of their travel plans and actually go where they say they are going. Normally, members of foreign embassies and consular posts are permitted to travel freely around the United States.
It is not the only unfriendly move on the part of the US. According to the 2015 Intelligence Authorization Act, all Russian nationals holding supervisory positions at US embassy and consulates in Russia were replaced with American citizens. It required US diplomatic centers in Russia, and any other country that shares a land border with the Russian Federation, to have a «sensitive compartmented information facility». The male embassy employees, including Marines guarding the embassy, were forbidden to make acquaintances with Russian women, no matter how ridiculous it sounds.
The US National Defense Authorization Act currently in force prohibits spending money on military cooperation with Moscow. At present, Congress is considering a Russia bill, which would spoil the relations for many years if it becomes a law. This package of anti-Russia punitive measures is added to the Iran bill. It would require President Trump to get consent from Congress before giving diplomatic compounds back to Russia. It means the problem should be resolved before the legislation becomes law.
The time to take the decision to return the property is now; otherwise it may take years to solve the issue, making it a permanent irritant to the bilateral relationship. The Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 became a law in January 1975. Many years had passed to make the provision lose its relevance and become an anachronism. The Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991 but… the law had been continuing to be in force until it was repealed in 2012 when the Magnitsky Act was signed into law.
The US lawmakers are going to any length in an effort to prevent a potential thaw in the Russia-US relationship. The goal is to obstruct any steps Donald Trump might take to normalize the bilateral ties with the country that US foreign policy guru, Henry Kissinger, considers to be «an essential element of any new global equilibrium».
There are other examples of the US hindering the activities of Russian diplomats on its soil. For instance, before the 2016 elections, Russian diplomats had been warned of criminal charges to be brought against them if they appeared at polling stations to get acquainted with US election process. Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana turned down the corresponding requests from the Russian consulate in Houston. Back then, the State Department said the effort to send diplomats was a «PR stunt»
For comparison, the Russian Federation sent personal invitations to US monitors asking them to observe the 2016 parliamentary elections, and 63 accepted the offer. In total, 774 monitors from 63 nations received accreditation to observe Russia’s parliamentary elections. In addition, US representatives visited Russia earlier as part of an OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ monitoring mission.
There is a host of burning issues the US and Russia need to address urgently but the diplomatic impasse over the properties stymies the process. The inability to proceed hurts the United States itself. Other countries witness the gross violation of international law. This is a severe blow to the US international reputation, which makes Washington look like an untrusted and unreliable partner who does not play by the rules. By continuing this policy, the US gains nothing but loses a lot.