The Trump administration is considering returning Russia’s diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York, five months after former President Barack Obama ordered them vacated and ejected dozens of Russian personnel as punishment for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Officials would likely give back the estates with strings attached, including revoking the diplomatic protections previously attached to the buildings, The Washington Post reported. The facilities would then be treated as ordinary buildings and could be searched by U.S. law enforcement, sources told WaPo on the condition of anonymity when discussing sensitive diplomatic matters.
U.S. intelligence officials accused the Russians in December of using the estates, one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the other outside of New York City, “for intelligence-related purposes.” The State Department separately ejected 35 diplomatic personnel suspected of being intelligence operatives.
A spokesman for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says that the administration has not made a deal to hand over control of the compounds to Russia.
“The U.S. and Russia have reached no agreements,” R.C. Hammond told reporters Wednesday. “The next meeting will be in June in St. Petersburg.”
The Trump administration told Russia in early May that it would consider giving the houses back if Moscow would lift its freeze on the construction of a new U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Soon after, the U.S. changed its position, and Tillerson told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the administration would not tie the return of the compounds to the consulate, according to people with knowledge of the discussion.
Negotiations over the status of the diplomatic compounds are taking place amidst a broader debate within the administration over whether to maintain sanctions on Russia, both for interference in the presidential election and for Moscow’s ongoing intervention in Ukraine. Administration officials have said that the sanctions will remain in place in the near future, but a long-term decision has yet to be made. (RELATED: Trump, A ‘Russian Stooge,’ Will Maintain Sanctions On Russia)
An easing of sanctions, including the return of the Russian compounds, could bring political problems for the administration amid Congressional and Justice Department investigations into possible collusion between Russia and Trump campaign officials. Kremlin spokesman Yury Ushakov said Wednesday that Russia understands “the difficult internal political situation for the current administration,” but would explore options to retaliate for what it considers the “expropriation” of its property, according to Russian news outlet Sputnik.
Russia has owned the estates in Maryland and New York since the days of the Soviet Union. Moscow says it uses them as a retreat for embassy and U.N. employees, and to hold official events.
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