The United States and Russia will hold a high-level meeting in Washington Monday to discuss “so-called irritants” in their relationship, the State Department announced Tuesday.
The term has been used in the past to describe diplomatic differences and sanctions, including the Obama administration’s decision in December to expel 35 Russian diplomats and shut down Russian-owned compounds in Maryland and New York in response to Russian meddling in last year’s election.
The Monday meeting between Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov follows the cancellation of a session scheduled last month in St. Petersburg. Russia shelved the meeting after the Trump administration announced an expansion of sanctions in response to the ongoing Ukraine crisis.
In a news conference Tuesday in Vienna, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov characterized the continued barring of Russian officials from the properties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and on Long Island as “outrageous.” He said that “we are thinking of concrete steps” to retaliate if they are not returned.
“I think it is shameful for such a great country as the United States, the champion of international law, to leave the situation in such a suspended state,” said Lavrov, whose government has called the seizure of the compounds illegal.
Russian media, quoting unnamed Foreign Ministry sources, said that the government has drawn up plans to expel 30 U.S. diplomats and seize unspecified American property there if the compounds are not returned. Asked about those reports, Lavrov said, “Naturally, we will ensure that the law prevails . . . We are currently thinking over specific steps, and I don’t think it should be discussed publicly right now.”
During a meeting in May with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov was told that the administration was prepared to return the compounds and to drop demands that Russia in turn permit construction of a new U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. U.S. officials said at the time that they were still considering placing conditions on the compounds — multi-acre properties that Russia insisted were only used for recreational purposes — including removal of diplomatic immunity from the premises.
After his meeting with Tillerson, Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, met with President Trump in the Oval Office.
The subject of the compounds, and of sanctions in general, have become entwined in ongoing investigations of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to skew the election toward Trump and away from Hillary Clinton. During the transition period, Michael Flynn, a top campaign aide who later became Trump’s White House national security adviser, reportedly advised Kisklyak that Moscow should put off responding to the Obama actions in anticipation of a more favorable policy toward Russia under the incoming Trump administration.
After he met last week in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump said he wanted to move forward toward “working constructively with Russia.” Although he subsequently tweeted that sanctions against Russia were not discussed, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that “there were sanctions specific to election-meddling that I believe were discussed.”
But Congress has voiced stiff opposition to any rollback of sanctions — including the return of the compounds — and said more should be imposed. The Senate last month overwhelmingly passed a bill outlining new measures against Iran and Russia.
The bill has become stalled in the House over differences on whether lawmakers should be able to override any move by Trump to ease sanctions. The White House has objected to that provision, saying that the president needs “flexibility” to pursue foreign policy.