Summer scandal: why the US would not return two Russia's diplomatic residences

Moscow and Washington "almost" agreed on the issue of Russia's diplomatic property in the United States, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sergey Ryabkov said. If the Russians are not restored access to the two residences, the Kremlin will be ready for "countermeasures". 
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On July 17, a meeting took place in Washington between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon. It lasted about two hours. As a result, Moscow and Washington "almost" agreed on Russia's diplomatic ownership, immediately after the talks, Ryabkov told reporters (he was told by TASS). Shannon refrained from commenting. If there is no serious progress on this issue, Russia will be forced to adopt "mirror measures," the Russian Foreign Ministry warned earlier.

The consultations of Ryabkov and Shannon were held within the framework of bilateral consultations to resolve problems in Russian-American relations. The previous meeting, scheduled for June 23 in St. Petersburg, was canceled by Moscow after Washington decided to expand sanctions against Russia because of the situation around Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry said. The problem of Russia's diplomatic property was also discussed by Russian and American presidents during their meeting in Hamburg on the margins of the G20 summit.

Ryabkov and Shannon's meeting "will have to end with absolutely concrete things," official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova pointed out on July 14. She also expected Shannon to provide concrete proposals for overcoming the crisis.

However, after the meeting of the deputy ministers, no agreement was reached on reaching an agreement. "The unsettledness of this issue, by and large, poisons the atmosphere and makes many things extremely difficult," Ryabkov stressed (quoted by Interfax). In the statement of the State Department following the results of the meeting, the matter of diplomatic capacity was not commented on.

"We told the Americans that their attempts to present the case as if they are entitled to carry out such actions are totally unacceptable for us. <...> I personally think that in the near future we will nevertheless proceed to practical reciprocal actions (to the address USA). At least I made a warning to Tom Shannon and other colleagues who participated in yesterday's consultations, "Ryabkov told RIA Novosti later. Earlier sources of RBC pointed out that Russia could move to practical actions at the end of July.

Two "cottages"

On December 29, 2016, US President Barack Obama signed a decree that obliged 35 Russian diplomats to leave America, and closed their colleagues' access to two real estate properties that Russians used, as they believed in Washington, for electronic intelligence and espionage. "The State Department closes two Russian territories, in Maryland and New York, which were used by Russian personnel for reconnaissance purposes, and also announces 35 Russian reconnaissance agents as non-grants," Obama said at the time. The reason for this decision was the alleged Kremlin intervention in US elections and "pressure" on US diplomats in Russia, the White House website reported. Moscow did not respond, taking a wait-and-see attitude.

The Russian dacha in the state of Maryland is located a hundred kilometers from Washington. It covers an area of about 45 acres (18 hectares) and is located in the town of Pioneer Point, in the vicinity of Centerville. The site was bought by the Soviet government in 1972. The residence, consisting of 33 rooms, is allegedly used by Russian diplomats for summer vacations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mansion and the plot, which the Associated Press estimated to be worth $ 3 million, was transferred to Russia.

In the state of New York, Russian diplomatic property occupies about 36 acres (15 hectares) and is located on the territory of the island of Long Island. In particular, Russia owns a 49-room Killeenworth mansion, acquired by the Soviet government back in 1951 to accommodate a Soviet diplomatic delegation to the UN, according to The New York Times. US officials called the diplomatic estate of Russia in Maryland and New York as a "dacha" and "distant cottage", wrote The Washington Post.

"Mirror measures"

The USA also owns real estate in Russia - it is the residence of the American ambassador in the center of Moscow (Spaso House), a dacha in Serebryany Bor, a warehouse on Dorozhnaya Street and the building of the Anglo-American school.

July 14, Maria Zakharova said that the list of responses to the December demarche of Washington was prepared by Moscow in the same month. Among them - the expulsion of American diplomats, a ban on the use of real estate. "The numerical strength of the US Embassy in Moscow is much higher than the number of our embassy workers in Washington. Accordingly, one of the begging options, apart from the purely symmetrical expulsion of Americans, is simply to equalize the personnel, "Zakharova explained.

The press secretary of the Russian president Dmitry Peskov repeatedly stressed that Moscow's patience "is running out." "It (patience) is still running out," he confirmed on July 18.

"By closing our access to Russian facilities in the US, the authorities of this country not only grossly violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, but also our bilateral agreement of 1979, according to which we provided the American Embassy in Moscow with two plots of land for a summer residence and for Warehouse ", - noted Zakharova (quotation on the site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

According to the Vienna Convention, the diplomatic property of a state in the host country is inviolable. "The premises of the representative office, objects of their situation and other property in them, as well as the means of transportation of the mission enjoy immunity from search, requisition, seizure and execution actions," says Art. 22 of the Vienna Convention.

However, under the laws of the United States, domestic legislation takes precedence over the international one, draws attention to the expert on American law Stanislav Grigoriev, adviser to Herbert Smith Freehills.

Diplomatic impasse

Washington is ready to return plots in Maryland and New York to Russia, if Moscow shows its conscientiousness in respect of the ceasefire in Syria, US Deputy Assistant to the Sebastian Gorka said last week. From the point of view of Dmitry Peskov, the nomination of conditions for the return of Russian property is contrary to international law and is unacceptable. On the day of Ryabkov and Shannon's meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called such demands "robbery in broad daylight."

Washington expects from Russia that the mansions in Maryland and New York will not be used to collect intelligence data in the future, and only in this case is ready to return the property, the US government secretary, Rex Tillerson, quoted in June the BuzzFeed.

The allegations that Moscow used dachas in Maryland and New York for espionage, need an evidence base, says Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (INF). "It's hard to show convincing evidence that the work was carried out from the territory of these facilities," he told RBC. From the legal point of view, the arrest of Russian diplomatic property is contrary to international law, because this property had diplomatic immunity, said RBC expert Valdai Discussion Club Rein Mullerson, former head of the Department of International Law at King's College London. "The seizure of diplomatic property, even if" illegal "activities were conducted from there, is a violation of international law," Mullerson said.

The arrest of Russian dachas in America is political, it's part of a wider problem, namely, a crisis in Russian-American relations, Mullerson believes. If the current republican administration agreed to return Russia its property, it would be used by Democrats and Republicans as part of an anti-Russian campaign, Mullerson said. Previously, Democrats in Congress had already opposed the return of property to Russia. "Why do we even consider the question of returning these dachas in the framework of negotiations with them [with Russia]?" - quotes BuzzFeed Democratic senator from New Hampshire Jean Shahin.

The lack of progress in resolving the problem of Russia's diplomatic ownership in the United States can drive Russian and American diplomats into an almost irresolvable impasse, Kortunov warns.