Russia stepped up pressure on the U.S. to return seized diplomatic compounds in one of the first tests of whether Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin can convert the personal rapport of their initial meeting into improved relations.
The country houses outside New York and Washington must be returned unconditionally after they were taken over by the U.S. “absolutely in breach of international law,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday. “We continue to hope that our American colleagues will demonstrate political wisdom and political will” to resolve the issue at talks in Washington on Monday between U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, he said.
The dispute shows there’s “a severe crisis in relations” between Russia and the Trump administration, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, an advisory body to the Kremlin. “An absolutely small thing has become fundamental for both sides” that may create a spiral of tit-for-tat responses, he said.
Russia’s made increasingly strident demands for the issue to be resolved since it was discussed at Trump and Putin’s first officialmeeting, which stretched for more than two hours at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg this month. It’s threatening to retaliate by seizing U.S embassy property in Moscow and expelling diplomats. The confrontation is putting Trump in a bind as he seeks to strengthen relations with Putin while also battling investigations in Washington into whether members of his campaign team colluded with Russia during last year’s presidential elections.
The U.S. will commit “daylight robbery” if it fails to return the properties, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during avisit to Belarus on Monday. There are “sensible people” in the administration who understand that Obama took the action to try to spoil prospects for Trump to improve relations with Russia, he said.
Putin broke with tradition and refrained from retaliating when outgoing President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and shut down the two compounds in December in response to the election hacking that U.S. intelligence agencies blamed on Russia. Trumphailed Putin’s decision at the time on Twitter as a “great move” and said “I always knew he was very smart!”
Nearly six months after Trump took office pledging to repair ties that all but collapsed under Obama, however, Russia’s patience is running out over his failure to reverse the measures.
Putin’s gesture “was an advance to the Trump administration, giving it a wonderful chance to junk the traps laid by Obama,” Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the international relations committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament, wrote on Facebook on Friday. “Let’s hope for wisdom, otherwise all the ‘mines’ laid by Obama and his team under the future of Russian-American relations will go off.”
While Putin’s been patient until now, measures planned against the U.S. are “so harsh that they will really feel it” if the Washington talks fail, Russian state TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov said on his flagship Sunday program. U.S. embassy officials will be expelled and “for those diplomats and families left behind, conditions will worsen to such an extent that they’ll be able to ask the State Department for bonuses” for working in Russia, he said.
The Trump administration may return the country houses to Russia because “we want to give collaboration, cooperation a chance,” in order to secure progress on issues such as resolving the war in Syria, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, told CNN on Thursday.
Russiacanceled a previous meeting between Ryabkov and Shannon in St. Petersburg last month after the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Russian companies and individuals over the conflict in Ukraine. Monday’s meeting offers a chance to “deal with some of these so-called irritants” in relations, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters last week.