Repeating what Russian diplomats said informally at the start of the week, the Russian foreign ministry said on Friday that “too many American spies operated in Moscow” under diplomatic cover and warned it might expel some of them to retaliate against Washington’s December 2016 expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. The warning, delivered by Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, reflects the growing frustration in Moscow over the Trump administration’s refusal to hand back two Russian diplomatic compounds which were seized at the same time as the Russian diplomats were sent home.
“The seized objects have not been returned. Washington has not only failed to cancel the decision to expel our employees, but also refuses to issue visas to those who are to replace them,” Zakharova said and added that at least Washington could have given access to Russian diplomats to the compounds while the issue is stalled.
As a reminder, then-president Barack Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies in December, along with the seizure of the two Russian diplomatic compounds in retaliation to what he said was the hacking of the DNC and the Podesta email account during the 2016 presidential election, a topic which has since plagued the Trump administration. While Putin decided not to respond in kind at the time, saying he would wait to see what the new administration of Donald Trump would do, relations between the US and Russia have deteriorated further since, prompting the more aggressive tone by Russia.
So what may happen next?
“We have a way of retaliating,” Zakharaova said pointing out that “the number of staff at the U.S. embassy in Moscow exceeds the number of our embassy employees in Washington by a big margin. One of our options, apart from a tit-for-tat expulsion of Americans, would be to even out the numbers.” Russia could also deny US diplomats use of a dacha compound and a warehouse in Moscow, she made clear.
She also took a swipe at the ongoing Russian collusion drama in the US, saying “there are too many employees of the CIA and the Pentagon’s espionage unit working under the roof of the American diplomatic mission whose activity does not correspond at all with their status.”
If there was no movement in the U.S.-Russia dispute soon, she warned Moscow would have to reluctantly retaliate. She also said that Moscow did not react immediately in December as it considered the Obama administration move as “provocative” and an attempt to disrupt bilateral relations under the new authorities. Zakharaova did not elaborate when Moscow would take retaliatory measures, and instead put the ball in the US court, saying that “there is no precise deadline. Everything depends on the reaction of the U.S. side, its concrete actions, and on the results of the consultations which will now take place in Washington.” But she did say that “time is running out.”
“For now we have the date of consultations on the issue and a clear position that time is running out,” she said.”We don’t want to resort to extreme measures. (But) if it’s the only way to make our American partners understand we will have to act.” Zakharova stressed that the US had enough time to deal with the “disgusting legacy and to start building relations based on mutual respect,” but still nothing has changed.
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Her statement came one day after President Trump’s assistant, Sebastian Gorka, said in an interview on CNN that the compounds may be handed back to Russia if the US sees “acts of good faith” from the Kremlin, similar to the recently-brokered ceasefire in Syria.
In response, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow will not negotiate any conditions to get the diplomatic property back, as the situation is “unacceptable” and the seizure violates international law.
“Taking the diplomatic property back to Russia cannot and should not be conditional on anything, it vehemently violates international law,” Peskov said.