A Closed sign is seen on the Russian Consulate building in San Francisco, California, September 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Beck Diefenbach
A Closed sign is seen on the Russian Consulate building in San Francisco, California, September 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Beck Diefenbach

In case it has escaped your notice, the diplomatic tit-for-tat between Moscow and Washington has become deadly serious.

After vacating all staff, on Saturday US authorities took control of three Russian diplomatic facilities, in San Francisco, Washington and New York. The US State Department has said it will control all access to the buildings and take responsibility for security and maintenance at the sites.

On Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry had summoned the US Deputy Chief of Mission and stressed that any such move would be an “unprecedented aggressive action.” Washington decided to go ahead and create a precedent.

The Russians are furious. A statement in Moscow on Sunday denounced the US maneuver as an “outrageous move” and “a blatantly hostile act”. It alleged that “US special services supported by armed police are in control of the seized buildings,” which “are the property of Russia and have diplomatic immunity.”

Moscow also demanded US authorities “come to their senses” and return the facilities forthwith. Otherwise, Washington will “bear the total blame” for what ensues.

Significantly, the statement warned that the degradation of Russia-US ties cannot but negatively impact “the current condition of global stability and international security.”

An act of Russian retaliation is on the cards. The Moscow grapevine is full of speculation. A possible countermove could be the retrocession of Spaso House, the residence of the American ambassador in Moscow.

A final decision is awaited. President Vladimir Putin is currently in Xiamen, China, attending the BRICS summit meeting, which will conclude on Tuesday.

Spaso House has legendary significance and it would be an enormous blow to US prestige if the Russian authorities canceled the lease on it and reclaimed the property.

Spaso House in Moscow. Photo: US Embassy Moscow photographer Valeriy Yevseyev

Tucked away in the famous Arbat district of downtown Moscow, Spaso House is a listed Neoclassical Revival building built in 1913 by a hugely successful industrialist and banker from Siberia named Nikolay Vtorov. According to the Forbes magazine, he was one of the richest men in Tsarist Russia, with a personal wealth estimated at over US$700 million dollars.

Ironically, due to his business acumen, Vtorov came to be known as the “Siberian American.” After the Bolshevik Revolution, he was killed in mysterious circumstances, in 1918, and his mansion became state property. It later became the residence of the American ambassador in 1935 when the two countries established diplomatic relations.

Of course, the most famous story about Spaso House relates to the Stalin era. In 1945, the Soviet authorities took advantage of the then ambassador William Harriman’s passion for wood carvings by presenting him with a beautiful wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States. So enchanted was he with the gift that he decided to hang it on the wall of his office. What the unsuspecting diplomat did not know was that the KGB had planted a listening device called Chrysostom (also known in the trade as Golden Mouth) near the beak of the eagle. The device, which ended up in the CIA Museum at Langley, was not discovered until 1952.

Spaso House has witnessed many epochal events down the years, not least the official dinner, during the historic visit to Moscow of US President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, in May 1988, which was attended by Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev and. The State Department airlifted in all the food and china for the occasion.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Photo: Mike Mozart via Flickr

Surprisingly, there was much decorum and civility in US-Russian diplomatic relations during the Soviet era. That classy touch is lost today. Even at the height of Cold War tensions, it was unthinkable that the grand diplomatic properties of either side would be “seized” in a fit of irascibility.

The State Department cannot be unaware that such blatant violations of the Vienna Convention do not go down well in the court of world opinion. In all probability, the crassness of the ploy was deliberately contrived, with the aim of striking at Russian pride.

The big question is whether President Barack Obama could have foreseen all this when he ordered sweeping sanctions against Russia last December, including the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, in retaliation for alleged Russian efforts to interfere with the US presidential election.

It seems highly unlikely that Obama’s diktat’s were a Machiavellian act to pre-empt his successor’s stated Russia policies. A more charitable explanation would be that the last president unknowingly lit the fuse.

What is apparent is that the career diplomats in Washington have gone on Sabbatical. The US security establishment seems now to be in the driving seat and determined to settle scores for all the real and perceived slights and humiliations against it ever since the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showed up at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on June 23, 2013.

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