An hourlong chat between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has reignited speculation that the U.S. could return two Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland.
The compounds were seized in December by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
A State Department spokesperson insisted Tuesday that no such deal was in the works, while Russia issued a slate of public statements that suggested increasing frustration over the issue within the Kremlin.
But the president’s lengthy dinner discussion with Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit on July 7 — with no U.S. interpreter present — has led some to speculate that the Russian president may have used the opportunity to lobby for the return of the compounds.
“I was concerned about that before that meeting — I don’t know what took place at that meeting. Knowing the way Mr. Trump conducts policy, it has me greatly concerned,” said Sen. Ben CardinBen CardinOil concerns hold up Russia sanctions push Compounds’ fate raised after Trump-Putin talk Administration briefs Senate on progress against ISIS MORE (Md.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
U.S. officials have long believed that Russian diplomats used the two compounds as a base from which to spy on the United States. Former President Obama affirmed as much when he closed the two facilities in December, stating that they were being “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes.”
Russia denied the charge but withheld retaliation at the time, opting instead to see whether Trump would take a softer line. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn reportedly steered Putin away from retaliation by suggesting that U.S. policy under Trump would be more favorable toward Russia.
“Great move on delay,” Trump tweeted at the time. “I always knew [Putin] was very smart!”
It remains unclear if — and how seriously — the White House is considering allowing the two compounds to reopen.
The State Department provided little clarity in a press briefing on Tuesday, with State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert first telling reporters that she “wouldn’t characterize” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as open to returning the properties if Moscow met certain conditions. But later, Nauert said she “didn’t know” if he is open to the prospect.
“These deals, so to speak, are going to take some time,” Nauert said. “Nothing is coming together anytime soon. I don’t have a timeline for you, but those conversations will be continuing.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov raised the issue Monday evening in a meeting in Washington with Tom Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary of State for political affairs. Asked after the meeting whether the two countries were close to a deal on the two compounds, Ryabkov reportedly responded with a smile, “Almost, almost.”
Republicans characterized the chance that the White House will return the two compounds as speculation based around nothing more than the unusual length of the dinner meeting.
“I don’t read anything into [the dinner], I really don’t,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerBob CorkerCompounds’ fate raised after Trump-Putin talk Tensions linger between Trump and GOP lawmakers Overnight Defense: Trump tapping Raytheon exec for Army secretary | GOP strips repeal of war authorization from spending bill | Senators get ISIS fight update MORE (R-Tenn.) told The Hill. “Look, I’ve been at meetings where you end up having sidebar meetings that last a while, and I just don’t really read anything into it.”
Multiple GOP members said they hadn’t heard anything concrete to suggest the administration is seriously considering taking that step, and several condemned the possibility.
“Right now that’s speculation — and I hope they don’t do it. There’s no reason to do it,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating election meddling.
But some outside policy experts suggest that returning the compounds would fit with the president’s promises to ensure better relations with Russia.
Relations between Russia and the U.S. became so strained under Putin and Obama that the White House canceled a symbolic one-on-one meeting between the two leaders in August 2013 after the administration determined that “there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda” to hold the summit.
Less than a year later, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, prompting a slate of punitive measures that remain in place today.
Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly vowed to pursue warmer relations with Moscow, famously praising Putin as a strong leader during the presidential race and pushing a partnership with the Kremlin to end the civil war in Syria and combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The Kremlin hasn’t wavered in its desire to regain the compounds. Ryabkov on Tuesday told the Russian news agency Tass that “we have warned Americans that we need an unconditional return of the property; otherwise, retaliation measures will follow.”
“I would say that it is a strong likelihood because it is one of the few ways that the administration right now can show that it is interested in pursuing improved relations with Russia and as a way to encourage further progress on the Syria issue,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security at the U.S. Naval War College and senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest.
“The administration cannot lift the Ukraine-related sanctions because Moscow hasn’t fulfilled any of the criteria that would permit sanctions relief, and apparently made that clear to the Russians — so this step would be the only tangible step that the administration could offer at this time.”
For some analysts, Ryabkov’s threat of retaliation suggests that Moscow has made little progress toward getting back the compounds.
Andrey Sushentsov, the program director for the Valdai Club, wrote in an email that Ryabkov’s statement following the meeting suggests that Russia is no closer to getting the compounds back.
“I don’t see here a worthy news — it’s a product of an agitated Washington attention to Trump phenomenon and does not deal with US-Russia relations,” Sushentsov wrote.
Eventually, one congressional aide familiar with the issue said, the U.S. will have to return the compounds.
“Hard to say, but at some point we return them since Russia owns them and has for decades,” the aide said.
“They’re legitimate summer houses for Russia’s diplomats, even as they’re listening posts. I suspect Moscow is as angry about being denied an opportunity to hunt upland birds on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as they are about losing [signals intelligence] on [the National Security Agency].”
But returning the compounds could be politically disastrous for a White House that has struggled to combat the impression that it is too friendly with Moscow while Congress works on new sanctions against Russia.
“Right now we’re looking at debating the Russian sanctions bill, so probably wouldn’t be the best time to do that,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas).
“The optics would not be good.”
Rebecca Kheel and Jonathan Easley contributed.