Delayed reaction: Russia threatens retaliation over seized compounds

Back in December, Barack Obama announced sanctions on Russia in response to their interference in the 2016 election cycle, which included the seizure of two compounds along with the expulsion of dozens of personnel with diplomatic immunity. At the time, Russia decided not to retaliate, apparently calculating that the incoming Donald Trump administration would offer a more friendly engagement. Their patience on that change has begun to run out, as CNN reports today, with their foreign ministry warning of “retaliatory measures” if the compounds are not returned ASAP:

Moscow “has the right to take retaliatory measures” if Washington does not address the seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds in the US along with “other concerns,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

The statement addresses Monday’s meeting in Washington between Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, in which the compounds — closed by then-President Barack Obama last December as part of sanctions for Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election — were discussed.

Shannon and Ryabkov “continued to look for ways to resolve pending issues,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “Russia reiterated to its US partners its readiness to resume regular dialogue on this issue after it was suspended by the previous administration,” it said.

Well … good luck with that. Let’s imagine what that would look like in the current political environment. The Trump administration would have to agree to hand back properties that seem suited for intelligence operations as well as diplomacy. That would take place in the middle of a four-alarm hysteria over speculation that Russian intelligence tried to boost Trump into the presidency, and the recent exposure of Donald Trump Jr’s embrace of an invitation to meet with a purported Russian government attorney, as the invitation promised, to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.

In the current political environment, such a return would be a non-starter, but there are also concerns over the substance of the demand within the administration. The Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur reports that even absent the political firestorm that such an action would produce, Trump’s advisors think it would reward Moscow for other bad behavior:

Trump’s own stated goal of close relations with Moscow have been stymied by the steady stream of leaks to the media about contacts figures close to him have had with Russian officials about the election. Many in Trump’s national-security team also say that while Russia can be an important partner in many respects, it is still playing a destabilizing role in Syria, Ukraine, and other places. The unconditional return of the compounds, they argue, would be rewarding Moscow for its continued actions.

So far, the threats haven’t changed that calculation, Ryabkov admitted to TASS:

“We came up with a number of ideas on how to achieve a visible and tangible improvement in relations. This also applies to the issue of the unconditional return of the Russian diplomatic property to us,” Ryabkov told TASS on Tuesday. “However, it would be an exaggeration to say that we are on the verge of finding a solution and resolving this situation.”

According to Ryabkov, the meeting with Shannon held on Monday “went off predictably.” “We expected great difficulties during the consultations with the Americans not only on the diplomatic property issue, but on most other issues as well, and so it happened,” he stated. …

“Such unacceptable and illegal actions cannot go unanswered,” he said. “Nothing is to declare on the issue yet, but we have warned Americans that we need an unconditional return of the property; otherwise, retaliation measures will follow.”

Some of this bluster is undoubtedly for domestic consumption, which is why Ryabkov is pushing this hard line in state-owned TASS. The frustration is likely genuine, though, and the threat of retaliation should be taken seriously — as far as it goes. The Russians will likely seize two properties operated by the State Department if they don’t get these two compounds back, and might throw in some diplomatic expulsions to complete the reciprocal cycle that they delayed back in December. It will be a kind of Kabuki theater, as both sides will simply replace the personnel and the real estate in the near future, but the diplomatic chill will last longer than that. In the meantime, a tough stand by Trump here will allow the White House and Trump supporters to argue that this tends to negate the idea that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, which is all the incentive Trump needs to dig in his heels at this quasi-ultimatum.

For the curious, here’s some footage of the Russians packing up their Maryland estate in late December after Obama imposed the sanctions. The compound looks pretty luxurious for nitty-gritty intel work, doesn’t it? It’s easy to see why they want it back, even from a purely aesthetic point of view.