Russians leave meeting without their seized US compounds

Russia and the Trump administration are still at odds after a high-level meeting over two Russian diplomatic compounds that the U.S. seized last year, a Kremlin official said today, while the United States was mum on the issue.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met Monday evening in Washington with Tom Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs — the highest-level meeting since the two countries’ presidents, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, met at the G-20 summit in Germany this month — as the Trump administration faces intense pressure from Russia on one side and the U.S. Congress on the other over the fate of the two compounds, or dachas, in New York and Maryland.

“It would be an exaggeration to say that we are on the verge of finding a solution and resolving this situation,” Ryabkov told Russian news agency Tass today, adding that the meeting “went off predictably” and that the two sides came up with “a number of ideas on how to achieve a visible and tangible improvement in relations.”

Asked after the meeting whether the two countries are close to a deal on the compounds, Ryabkov said with a smile, “Almost, almost.”

But in a statement released today, the State Department made no mention of the compounds — only a joint commitment to restart arms control talks. “The conversation was tough, forthright and deliberate, reflecting both parties’ commitment to a resolution,” it read. “It is clear that more work needs to be done.”

The Obama administration cut off Russia’s access to the dachas in December and expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russia has been losing patience with the Trump administration over the issue, threatening to retaliate if the compounds are not returned soon. Ryabkov reiterated that threat today.

“Retaliation measures will follow” unless those two compounds are returned unconditionally, he told Tass.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov took a slightly softer tone Monday, telling reporters that Russia hopes the White House can find the “political wisdom and political will” to return the dachas.

But Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said any action on returning the dachas would be “a major affront to Congress.”

Cardin, D-Md., is just the latest to express his opposition; two bipartisan groups of senators — including Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Johnny Isakson of Georgia — have written letters to the Trump administration urging it not to return the compounds.

The Senate passed sanctions legislation in June that would codify existing sanctions, implement new ones and force the Trump administration to seek congressional approval before it may change or lift any sanctions, including returning the compounds. The legislation is awaiting a vote in the House, where it is being held up.

Despite the threats from Russia and strong congressional opposition, the Trump administration appears to be considering returning the dachas. Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, said on CNN on Thursday, “We want to give collaboration, cooperation a chance.”

The White House may ask for something in return. Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik reported that a senior White House official said Monday that the properties would be returned only if the U.S. receives something from Moscow — which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blasted as “daytime robbery.”

The United States’ set of grievances includes Russian harassment of U.S. diplomats in Moscow and other foreign cities and a ban on American adoptions of Russian children.

Ryabkov canceled his last scheduled meeting with Shannon in June, while Shannon was traveling in Europe on his way to St. Petersburg, because the U.S. announced updated sanctions over Russian aggression in Ukraine a couple of days earlier. The two men met once before, in New York in May, as the Trump administration has sought better relations with Moscow.

The State Department said the two sides are discussing a date to meet again.

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