Russia and the Trump administration are still at odds after a high-level meeting over the United States’ returning two diplomatic compounds to Russian control, a Kremlin official said today, while the United States was mum on the issue.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met Monday evening with U.S. Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon in Washington -- 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."
After leaving the meeting, Ryabkov responded to a shouted question about whether the two countries are close to a deal on the Russian compounds with a smile, saying, "Almost, almost."
But the State Department made no mention of the compounds in a statement released today, only a joint commitment to restart arms control talks. "The conversation was tough, forthright, and deliberate, reflecting both parties’ commitment to a resolution," it said. "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. 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 still find the "political wisdom and political will" to return the dachas.
But the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said any action toward returning the dachas would be "a major affront to Congress."
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., is just the latest to express his opposition; two bipartisan groups of senators have previously written letters to the Trump administration, urging them not to return the compounds, including Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Johnny Isakson of Georgia
The Senate passed new sanctions legislation in June that would codify existing sanctions, implement new ones and force the Trump administration to seek congressional approval before it can change 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 does appear to be considering returning the dachas. As the deputy assistant to the president, Sebastian Gorka, said on CNN last Thursday, "We want to give collaboration, cooperation a chance."
The White House may ask for something in return. Russian state-owned agency Sputnik reported that a senior White House official said Monday that the properties would be given back only if the United States receives something back from Moscow, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blasted as "daytime robbery."
For the United States, the set of grievances includes an end to Russian harassment of U.S. diplomats and a lift on the ban of Americans adopting 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 days prior. 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 future date to meet again.