Putin aide: US move to close Russian facilities is designed to escalate tensions
Russian official on smoke at San Francisco consulate: "Emergency conservation" at building underway
Russia handed a senior US diplomat in Moscow a strongly worded note of protest Saturday, the same day US officials had vowed to shutter three Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States amid escalating tensions.
The US deputy chief of mission in Moscow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry and given a note of protest “in connection with the intention of the US authorities to search the Trade Representation of the Russian Federation in Washington,” the ministry said in an online statement.
The Foreign Ministry note vehemently protested what it called an “Illegitimate search without the presence of Russian officials” and cited what it said is an unprecedented, aggressive “threat to break the front door.” The note also said that “US Special Services” could use this action to organize an anti-Russian provocation by planting “compromising objects.”
“The US authorities must stop the gross violations of international law and breaching the immunity of Russia’s diplomatic institutions. Otherwise, we reserve the right to reciprocate on mutual basis,” the note said.
The State Department announced Thursday that it would close the Russian Consulate General in San Francisco as well as annexes in Washington and New York in response to forced staff cuts at the US mission in Russia.
The department denied the accusations by the Russian government, including that US officials threatened to break down doors.
State Department officials and Russian personnel walked through the three Russian diplomatic facilities to conduct what a senior department official called “inspections” to “secure and protect the facilities and to confirm the Russian government had vacated the premises,” the senior official said.
Russia has complied with the order to vacate the three facilities, the official said, adding that the department is allowing families living in the consulate “sufficient time to pack and move.”
Alexander Stadnik, Russia’s trade representative in Washington, told reporters off camera Saturday that all Russians have left the city’s trade annex and documents were moved to the Russian Embassy.
A senior aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin called Washington’s decision a “raider takeover” designed to escalate tensions with Russia.
“These new steps push the bilateral relations further into a deadlock,” Yuri Ushakov told Russian state media outlet Russia Today late Friday.
“Moreover, they contradict the statements made by the US President’s administration, including at the highest level, on the establishment of cooperation,” he said. “There were words, but there’s still no readiness for cooperation. … Unfortunately, the spiral of unfriendly moves tightens.”
The plan to close the three diplomatic facilities abruptly marks the latest in a series of tense diplomatic exchanges between the two nations, following US allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Black smoke in San Francisco
In a moment of drama Friday, black smoke billowed from a chimney at the San Francisco consulate building, prompting the city’s fire department to tweet: “The Russian embassy had a fire alarm NOT A FIRE everything is okay.”
Responding to online speculation over the cause, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said “emergency conservation of the building” had been underway.
“Measures are being taken to preserve the building,” Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook. “Therefore the windows may be closed, the curtains may be lowered, the light may be turned off, the doors may be locked, garbage may be disposed of, heating devices may be switched off, life support systems switched on, and much more.”
US Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, had earlier tweeted about the scene: “If there ever was doubt that espionage was going on in the SF consulate, black smoke clears the air on the issue.”
Russia calls US order a ‘violation of law’
In a separate Foreign Ministry statement Friday, Zakharova slammed the US move to shutter the Russian outposts as “yet another blatant violation of international law.”
She claimed Russian staff and their families who live at the consulate were ordered to leave the building for 12 hours Saturday while “US secret services” search it.
A State Department official on Friday told CNN: “Russia will no longer be permitted to use these facilities for diplomatic, consular, or residential purposes. Public operations at the Consulate in San Francisco must cease by September 2.”
“The facilities will be closed, and entry or access to the properties will be granted only with permission of the Department of State. The State Department will secure and maintain the properties in keeping with our responsibilities. Relevant information on timing has been transmitted to Russian officials. We have nothing further to announce, at this time,” the official said.
In her statement, Zakharova said “unprecedented restrictive measures” by the United States would deny visa, notary and other consular services to ordinary Russian and US nationals on the US West Coast.
Russia reserves the right to take retaliatory action, Zakharova added, “as is customary in diplomatic affairs. This was not Russia’s choice. It was imposed on us.”
The decision to close the Russian facilities was made by President Donald Trump, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
It’s the latest in a series of tit-for-tat moves following US allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Shortly before leaving office in January, President Barack Obama ordered 35 Russian diplomats to leave the United States and two Russian compounds to be closed, prompting vows from Russian authorities that Moscow would respond in kind.
In July, the Russian Foreign Ministry ordered the United States to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia by nearly half and announced it would seize two US diplomatic properties in response to expanded sanctions passed by Congress.
“We believe this action was unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement about Russia’s move.
CNN’s Mary Ilyushina, Aileen Graef, Michelle Kosinski, Kevin Bohn, Sophie Tatum and Laura Koran contributed to this report.