It’s not a good sign when Russia threatens to retaliate against the United States for that time President Obama kicked their diplomats (and possibly spies) out of some palatial compounds in Maryland and Long Island. Earlier this summer, President Trump was hoping he could give the compounds back to Russia in exchange for a choice property he wants for a U.S. embassy. Now it seems the Kremlin will punish the Trump administration if he won’t give in to their demands.
“We have warned Americans that we need an unconditional return of the property; otherwise, retaliation measures will follow,” said Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. It isn’t the first time that Ryabkov has gotten touchy with the U.S. — at the end of May, he scolded the White House for its torrent of leaks, including one that allegeded Jared Kushner tried to arrange secret communiques with Russia. In June he refused to meet with Rex Tillerson over the U.S. sanctions against Russia. Now he’s pressing for a swift solution to the compound impasse, telling the State Department, “we cannot go round in circles.”
The situation looks bad from a number of angles. For one, it suggests that President Trump doesn’t really understand the nuances of the U.S. relationship with Russia or how to finesse a deal with them. He thinks he can appease Russia and still get what he wants by sweetening the pot with these compounds. But note that Ryabkov said “unconditional return.” Russia didn’t come here to make friends. They came here to win their prime digs back, real estate that was taken away because President Obama was so certain of Russian interference in the U.S. election.
This move suggests that the Kremlin feels it has enough of an advantage to muscle its way back onto American soil. The optics of that assumption are especially troubling given all the scrutiny currently being paid to the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. Not only that, but the particular focus on the Russian connections of the Trump family members closest to the President, not only in private, but also in their government roles. Just as the investigation heats up on Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner in meetings with a Russian lawyer with Kremlin ties, Putin decides he’s going to get his property back — or else.
That puts Trump in a difficult position. He can give Russia the compounds back and appear like he’s been bought, or he can refuse and deteriorate ties further. Another a factor is that Congress is none too likely to approve of returning the compounds. They actually want more sanctions against Russia whether the President agrees or not, and have actively written restrictions into their bill that will keep Trump from trying an executive override.