Yesterday Russian officials warned the country could seize U.S. diplomatic territory in Moscow if the U.S. does not return two sites in Maryland and New York. The two compounds are the ones President Obama closed last year in response to Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. From Reuters:
[Russian newspaper] Kommersant, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, said on Friday that Moscow wanted the compounds back before a possible meeting at the G20 in Germany in July between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump.
If that did not happen, the newspaper cited the sources as saying Russia could retaliate by seizing a U.S. diplomatic dacha, or country house, in Serebryany Bor in north-west Moscow and a U.S. diplomatic warehouse in Moscow.
Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova made clear this was not a request. “We demand that everything that was seized in an absolutely illegal way be returned to us immediately,” she said. Today, State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said Russia’s “threat” would have no impact on U.S. decision making. From ABC News:
“I’m not going to respond to a threat being delivered by Russia. I’m also not going to respond to a hypothetical,” Nauert said at a press briefing Thursday…
“Those discussions are ongoing. That is one of the issues –- the dachas –- that remains an irritant and something they certainly have asked us to address,” she said, using the Russian term for the facilities that purported to be vacation spaces for their diplomats.
There was a report last week that U.S. was already considering moving in the direction of returning those two compounds, so why is Russia making threats and, effectively, setting a deadline? Is this part of Putin’s strongman image being put out for domestic consumption?
More importantly, why is the U.S. considering giving these compounds back at all? ABC News notes there is some bipartisan opposition to that idea:
“Returning the compounds to Russian control is unjustifiable,” wrote Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland). “It would both make it easier for the Kremlin to continue its intelligence operations in our own backyard and make it clear that they can avoid consequences for their actions.”
Obviously, there is an understanding between Russia and the U.S. about these compounds, i.e. they have spies here and, in turn, we have spies there. Obama cut off their spy compounds and now they are threatening to do the same in return.
If President Trump doesn’t like the response to Russian interference in the election that President Obama initiated, that’s his prerogative. He’s the president now and he can respond as he sees fit. But shouldn’t Russia be paying some price for that interference? I’m not talking about the hacking of John Podesta’s email account, I’m talking about the attempt by the Russian military to gain access to the computers of officials responsible for voter registration systems in several states. While there’s no evidence that this tampering had any impact, they did try to get inside our voting system just prior to a presidential election. This seems like a pretty serious act of cyber-espionage and one that deserves some sort of equally serious response. If not the denial of these spy compounds, what is that response?