Saturday Night Fever: US Seizes Russia’s Diplomatic Outposts

Saturday Night Fever: US Seizes Russia’s Diplomatic Outposts

Music was loud with the US State Department staying very much alive as Saturday Night Fever started on September 2. Three Russian diplomatic outposts – the consulate in San Francisco and trade offices in Washington and New York – were seized after it was confirmed that the Russian staff had complied with the administration’s order to get out within two days. «Inspections» or better searches to call a spade a spade were carried out to secure and protect the facilities and to confirm the Russian government had vacated the premises. The closures on both US coasts marked perhaps the most drastic diplomatic measure by the United States against Russia since 1986, near the end of the Cold War, when the countries expelled dozens of each other's diplomats.

The US move is part of the escalating tit-for-tat game that began in the aftermath of the US presidential election. In late 2016, then-President Barack Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and the seizure of two Russian government compounds in response to alleged but never confirmed Russia’s interference in the presidential election and the differences over Ukraine. Back then, Russia did not retaliate immediately, but adopted the wait and see approach hoping that relations would improve under the US new administration. The hopes appear to be dashed.

Washington launched the sanctions war to make Moscow order the US to cut its diplomatic personnel in July, announcing property seizures of its own. The number of American staff in Russia was brought down to 455 to match the number of Russian diplomats in the US. Now the diplomatic war started by the United States appears to be unstoppable. Easy to start, hard to end. President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Russia needs to «think carefully about how we could respond» to one of the thorniest diplomatic confrontations between Washington and Moscow in decades. «We will have a tough response to the things that come totally out of the blue to hurt us and are driven solely by the desire to spoil our relations with the United States», Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a televised meeting with students at Russia's top diplomacy school (MGIMO).

US deputy chief of mission in Moscow, Anthony Godfrey, was summoned by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) where a formal, strongly worded protest note was delivered. The Russia trade office search was called an «unprecedented aggressive action». The note said the planned «illegal inspection» of Russian diplomatic premises included a «threat» to break down the front doors and any search could be used by the US special services for «anti-Russian provocations» by the way of «planting compromised items».

From now on, the State Department will control all access to the properties, along with the responsibility for securing and maintaining them. The US believes «parity» has been achieved with each side in possession of three consulates but the parity of diplomatic staff is conditional because Washington counts the Russian UN mission’s staff.

In late July, Russia gave American personnel on its territory two months to pack. And there were no searches. For comparison, in 2016 the US made the Russian staff to leave in just 72 hours, including families with newborn babies and toddlers. Nobody on the American side explained the reason for this rush. It was the eve of New Year. People had no time for anything but pack personal belongings. With no time to buy tickets they had to use the special flight organized by the Russian government. Were small children such a menace to the United States that they could not stay to meet New Year without urgently packing their toys? Very inhumane and uncivilized, to put it mildly.

That was under the Obama administration. This time it’s different. The staff is told to leave in two days but in San Francisco those who are living in the building are allowed to occupy the living quarters till October 1. They are not expelled and are allowed to stay in the country and work in other Russian offices. The office in San Francisco is closed but the trade missions remain with the buildings vacated. They can continue to work in other places.

Now the main thing. The US has grossly violated international law. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the US-USSR consular convention of 1968 state diplomatic properties are inviolable.

The State Department cites the 1982 Foreign Missions Act which states that «The Secretary may require any foreign mission to divest itself of, or forgo the use of, any real property determined by the Secretary» to protect the interests of the United States. If a foreign mission has ceased conducting diplomatic, consular, and other governmental activities in the United States, the Secretary «may dispose of such property at such time as the Secretary may determine after the expiration of the one-year period beginning on the date that the foreign mission ceased those activities».

But «the interest of the United States» can be anything, it can be construed anyway you like because the Act does not make it precise. No criteria are offered. Nothing is said whether a foreign mission is obliged to comply. Nothing is said about the right of access to property. But all these things are made very clear in the international and bilateral conventions the United States is a party to. They say the right of inviolability is guaranteed.

Article 27 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations states that «the receiving State shall, even in case of armed conflict, respect and protect the consular premises, together with the property of the consular post and the consular archives».

Article 31 states «The host nation may not enter the consular premises, and must protect the premises from intrusion or damage». It says further «The authorities of the receiving State shall not enter that part of the consular premises which is used exclusively for the purpose of the work of the consular post except with the consent of the head of the consular post or of his designee or of the head of the diplomatic mission of the sending State. The consent of the head of the consular post may, however, be assumed in case of fire or other disaster requiring prompt protective action».

Article 17 of the US-USSR Consular Convention of 1968 states that «The buildings or parts of buildings and the land ancillary thereto, used for the purposes of the consular establishment and the residence of the head of the consular establishment, shall be inviolable. The police and other authorities of the receiving state may not enter the building or that part of the building which is used for the purposes of the consular establishment or the residence of the head of the consular establishment without the consent of the head thereof, persons appointed by him, or the head of the diplomatic mission of the sending state».

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states the very same thing. The property is inviolable. Under no circumstances can a consular office be deprived of diplomatic immunity. But the US insists it has the right to get inside! They say the property is not inviolable anymore because consular activities are longer allowed. This is an outright disrespect of the US international obligations.

Tit for tat wars bring no positive results. Nobody wins, everyone loses. While the US is engaged in property games, North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb. Iran is engaged in ballistic missile race. The situation in Syria is nearing the point when the major actors have to cooperate to find a solution to the problem and launch a nation building process. They must cooperate and work productively and very closely. The arms control and non-proliferation regimes are in doldrums. The fight against terror calls for unification of efforts. Instead of concentrating on the burning problems that really threaten the US security; the country is playing the tit for tat games demonstrating its disrespect of the existing universal rules to hurt its international image.