Officials: US mulls return of Russian diplomatic compounds

WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia are holding high-level negotiations that could lead to the return of two Russian diplomatic compounds seized as punishment for Moscow’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, officials said Thursday. The talks are intensifying even as election-related investigations in Washington show no sign of ending.

Washington and Moscow are preparing for a second-round of talks on removing “irritants” in their relationship and both sides are pushing aggressively for their priorities. For Russia, these include returning the New York and Maryland compounds seized by the Obama administration, according to Russian officials. The U.S. wants Russia to stop harassing American diplomats and civilians in the country, and to resolve a dispute related to the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, American officials said.

The officials weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The demands were outlined in detail at a first round of talks between Thomas Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Sergey Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, in New York last month. The diplomatic channel, created by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, aims to solve some of the smaller issues holding up a broader improvement in U.S.-Russian cooperation on such matters as ending Syria’s civil war.

The process is still in an early stage, U.S. officials said. The next get-together will take place later this month in St. Petersburg and isn’t expected to result in a deal, despite Russian complaints about delays and warnings of consequences if an agreement on the compounds isn’t reached quickly.

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“They’re projecting that the negotiations are further along than they are,” said R.C. Hammond, a senior Tillerson adviser.

Hammond was referencing several aggressive statements and tweets from Russian diplomats about the compounds they were evicted from in December, and a report suggesting the U.S. had dropped a demand that permission for a new St. Petersburg consulate be part of any agreement. The Russian compounds are located in Oyster Bay, New York, on Long Island, and along the Corsica River in the Eastern Shore region of Maryland.

The Obama administration had claimed the Cold War-era estates were being used for intelligence activities. The U.S. closed the sites at the same time it ordered 35 Russian officials to leave the country in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged cybermeddling to help President Donald Trump’s election chances. Russian diplomats had gone for decades to each estate to play tennis, sail and swim.

Their return has been atop Moscow’s wish list since Trump entered office.

Russia’s late U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, raised the matter in his first meeting with Trump’s U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, earlier this year, according to a U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and demanded anonymity. Churkin expressed indignation at the decision and declared their reacquisition a top Russian diplomatic priority, the official said.

Just four days after Shannon and Ryabkov’s May 8 meeting, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said: “We are patient, but this patience is not unlimited. If no solution is found, some response measures from the Russian side will be on the agenda.”

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Last week, Russia’s U.S. embassy upped the ante. “Russia is seeking to return its diplomatic property in #US asap. Otherwise, we will have to take counter measures,” it tweeted.

And on Wednesday, the embassy tweeted that “Property rights in (America) are affirmed by legal documents issued in US.” It posted a picture and quote of American founding father John Adams about the sacredness of such rights.

But on Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry hinted at room for maneuvering, saying the compounds were a matter of “compensation for damages.” Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in an interview on state television that no U.S. proposal had yet been made.

Washington has been pressing for the new consulate since Moscow blocked the U.S. from developing a St. Petersburg site in 2014. That decision followed U.S. sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

The U.S. request “remains on the table,” Hammond said.

Officials said the U.S. won’t swap the Russian compounds for the St. Petersburg consulate without action on other issues. They suggested the U.S. would consider consulate options beyond the land that had been previously chosen. One option could be an “upgrade” to the current consulate, which needs repairs and better protection against potential security compromises, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to speak on internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Other U.S. grievances include Russian harassment of American diplomats and citizens. Washington also wants a ban reversed on American parents adopting Russian children, and expanded cultural and exchange programs between the two countries.

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Russia’s demands include easing America’s various Ukraine-related sanctions and surveillance of its diplomats in the United States.

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Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Moscow and Vivian Salama in Washington contributed to this report.

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