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Shuttered Russian compounds in U.S. may be re-opened

Russian compounds

While Washington is laser-focused on allegations about any inappropriate communications between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government, the Russians are focused on a major perk for their diplomats in the U.S.: their two Cold War-era estates in the U.S., in Maryland and New York.
 
The Russians have been in regular contact with the U.S. about the two compounds, which the Obama administration shut down last year after concluding that Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. As first reported by Buzzfeed, the Kremlin insists that the properties must be returned. 

"It is ours. We are going to get them back," the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak told CBS News on Monday night. He said that the Kremlin is not interested in a U.S. government proposal that the Russians could sell the properties.

The same message -- with a threat -- is coming from Moscow.

"We demand for what was taken away illegally be returned to us immediately, and we would also like to note that if it so happens that Washington does not restore the diplomatic immunity of our property, the response in regard to U.S. property in Russia will be symmetric," said Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry.

If the U.S. does not re-open the doors to these compounds, it's not exactly clear what shape Russian retaliation will take. But there are a number of ways tension between Russia and the U.S. could be increased.
 
"Going after the embassy compound in Moscow or the ambassador's residence, Spaso House, would invite counter-moves by the U.S. here in D.C.," says a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. The official points out that the U.S. no longer has a massive compound on the outskirts of Moscow for its employees that is similar to these Russian compounds.
 
The State Department would not respond to Zakharova's threat but it did acknowledge the conversations about the compounds are "ongoing." Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson, expects the conversations to continue, though she did not have details "regarding what agreements could eventually be made."
 
U.S. diplomats recall being invited to the sprawling Russian compound on the Maryland shore for pool parties and schmoozing. These are also places that have offered Russian employees and their families a getaway. They could go there to play tennis, sail and enjoy the outdoors. The other compound is, according to U.S. officials, a 14-acre property on Long Island in New York that the Russians have owned since the 1950s.

The closure of the Russian compounds took place in conjunction with new Russian sanctions that included the expulsion of 35 Russians who the U.S. said were spies operating under diplomatic cover. The announcement, in December 2016, also came at a time when the harassment of U.S. officials in Russia had been on the rise. 

"It had reached Soviet levels," says one former U.S. government official.

U.S. diplomats in Russia found their car tires slashed, they experienced home break-ins, and some even faced violent attacks. The U.S. ambassador to Russia was subjected to a heightened harassment which, according to a report by the U.S. inspector general for the State Department, began creeping up to a level "far more serious" than U.S. diplomats had seen before in 2013. "Unwarranted public criticism and intrusive surveillance were common," the IG's report read.

So, closing the compounds was a specific effort to make a statement to the Russians on a personal level, the U.S. has admitted. Obama administration officials, however, also claimed the two sprawling compounds were being used for intelligence activities and did not intend to allow them to be re-opened. But some see the possibility of opening the compounds as a way to leverage U.S. interests.

"There is a kind of deal that could make sense:  one in which the U.S. is not giving away something for nothing, and not giving away somebody else's equity," says Daniel Fried, who formerly worked on crafting Russian sanctions during the Obama administration. He suggested that an appropriate deal would include the Russians committing to an end of U.S. personnel harassment in Russia, as well as an agreement to give the U.S. access to property that they have wanted to use in St. Petersburg. "If not, you look like suckers."

Some lawmakers are dubious about restoring access to the compounds to Russia. Senator Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, says that while opening these Russian compounds is not directly related to the Russian cyber hacking or activities under investigation related to Ukraine, "in a way all of this is related" because it all ties back to Russia's aggression against U.S. national security interests.

"If Russia continues to be aggressive, what country is next? They have already interfered with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine in geographical integrity," Cardin said. "What country is going to come next? So, we say because we are worried about them retaliating against us with our embassy in Russia, we will let them have Poland and Lithuania and maybe Estonia? The way to stop this is to be strong."

Later this month, U.S. Under Secretary Tom Shannon will travel to Moscow. Shannon is now the top U.S. diplomat to handle the U.S.-Russian irritants.

Lately, U.S.-Russian relations have been worsening and could deteriorate further if any of the allegations being investigated by the U.S. intelligence community and members of Congress turn out to be true. Two Senate committees reached a bipartisan agreement Monday on expanding and strengthening sanctions against Russia over the election interference. The bill would require any changes to Russian sanctions to go through Congress, taking away Mr. Trump's ability to ease Russian sanctions on his own. Tillerson has warned that new sanctions may deter the ongoing "positive" conversations with the Russians regarding joint efforts in Syria. The secretary, however, has said it is too early to see if those conversations will "bear fruit," and Congress wants to push sanctions sooner rather than later.  

Since his election, Mr. Trump has not yet met with Russian President Putin, though the two have talked by phone. The Trump administration has not issued any harsh retaliation for its involvement in the U.S. election. They will have their first face-to-face meeting soon, however. The White House confirms that the two will "certainly" see one another on the president's next foreign trip.

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