WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia on Monday resumed high-level talks aimed at resolving several irritants between them, as Moscow’s patience dwindles for the return of two seized diplomatic compounds.
The outposts were seized by the Obama administration as part of US sanctions against Russia over election hacking that US intelligence agencies blamed on Moscow. Attempts to resolve the dispute are being viewed as a major test of the new friendship between President Trump and President Vladimir Putin.
Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov led the meeting Monday. US officials played down chances for a breakthrough, especially since Russia abruptly canceled the diplomats’ last scheduled meeting in June in response to new Ukraine-related sanctions.
Ryabkov did not respond to a reporter’s shouted question as he arrived at the State Department Monday with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States.
The goal is to pave the way for future cooperation on Syria, Ukraine, and other global issues by first building trust through discussions about smaller issues.
The resumption in talks came less than two weeks after Trump and Putin held a highly anticipated first meeting in Germany, an encounter both countries described as a positive first step toward improving relations.
Driving the agenda are grievances each country wants the other to address. The United States wants Moscow to stop harassing American diplomats and to lift a ban on US adoptions of Russian children.
Russia wants the United States to return two Cold War-era recreational estates, ordachas — one in Maryland and one in New York — that the Obama administration seized as part of its response to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Though Putin declined toretaliate in December for Obama’s response — which also included expelling 35 Russian diplomats the United States said were really spies — frustration has mounted in Moscow amid disappointment that Trump has not reversed those actions.
Senior Russian officials have said in recent days that without a resolution soon, Moscow will have to retaliate, possibly by expelling American diplomats and moving against US properties in Russia.
At the same time, pressure has been mounting on the Trump administration not to return the two compounds at least until investigations into the role Russia played in the 2016 election are completed or without guarantees that Russia will not repeat the meddling.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday that the country houses must be returned unconditionally because they were taken by the United States “absolutely in breach of international law.”
“We continue to hope that our American colleagues will demonstrate political wisdom and political will” to resolve in the dispute, Peskov said.
The dispute shows there’s “a severe crisis in relations” between Russia and the Trump administration, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, an advisory body to the Kremlin.
“An absolutely small thing has become fundamental for both sides” that may create a spiral of tit-for-tat responses, Lukyanov told Bloomberg News.
Russia’s made increasingly strident demands for the issue to be resolved since it was discussed at Trump and Putin’s first official meeting, which lasted more than two hours at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg this month.
The confrontation is putting Trump in a bind as he seeks to strengthen relations with Putin while also battling investigations in Washington on whether members of his campaign team colluded with Russia during the election.
The United States will be committing “daylight robbery” if it fails to return the properties, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Belarus on Monday. There are “sensible people” in the administration who understand that Obama took the action to try to spoil prospects for Trump to improve relations with Russia, he said.
When Putin initially refused to retaliate for the seizure of the mansions, Trump hailed the Russian leaders decision at the time on Twitter as a “great move” and said “I always knew he was very smart!”
Nearly six months after Trump took office pledging to repair ties that all but collapsed under Obama, however, Russia’s patience is running out over his failure to reverse the measures.