The United States and Russia are reviving high-level talks aimed at resolving major irritants between the two world powers, the U.S. State Department has said.
The announcement came after Russia’s top diplomat threatened retaliation if the United States did not return two Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland that were seized by the Obama administration in December.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon will host Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Washington on July 17 for talks that are expected to focus on resolving the row over the diplomatic compounds, which the Kremlin has made a top priority.
Moscow last month abruptly canceled the last scheduled meeting between Shannon and Ryabkov after the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine.
But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the talks were now back on track, without providing a reason. “Shannon has been hard at work as we have been trying to find areas that we could deal with some of these so-called irritants,” she said.
The dialogue was launched earlier this year at what U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called a “low point” in U.S.-Russia relations, in hopes that making progress on relatively minor issues such as the diplomatic spat might enable the two countries to cooperate on larger matters such as the wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine.
Revival of plans for the talks follows the first meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany last week, in an encounter both countries described as a positive first step toward improving relations.
Ryabkov, speaking to Russian media on a visit to Tehran on July 11, said the presidential meeting had inspired a “certain hope that the situation will change for the better.”
Driving the agenda for the meeting is a set of grievances both countries want the other to address, including U.S. calls for Moscow to stop harassing its diplomats and to lift a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
The Kremlin is keenly focused on getting the United States to return control of its two Cold War-era recreational estates that former President Barack Obama seized as part of his response to Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Putin declined to retaliate in December for the seizures and simultaneous expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats the White House said were really spies, saying he wanted to give Trump an opportunity to weigh in on the matter.
But Moscow has recently made clear it is not willing to wait much longer. On July 11, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threatened unspecified retribution if the compounds, also known as dachas, aren’t given back soon.
“We hope that the United States, as a country which promotes the rule of law, will respect its international obligations,” Lavrov said after a meeting in Brussels with EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini.
“If this does not happen, if we see that this step is not seen as essential in Washington, then of course we will take retaliatory measures. This is the law of diplomacy, the law of international affairs, that reciprocity is the basis of all relations.”
Lavrov declined to elaborate. But the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported on July 11 that Moscow plans to kick out about 30 U.S. diplomats and seize U.S. government property in Russia if the issue is not resolved at next week’s talks.
Ryabkov was not optimistic ahead of the meeting. “Our dialogue with the United States remains difficult,” he told Russian reporters in Tehran. “It would be wrong to expect our bilateral relations to improve overnight.”
Ryabkov said that “it’s an alarming sign” that so far the Trump administration has refused to return the seized compounds.
Ryabkov blamed Russian “enemies in Congress” and the Obama administration for creating a “gap” in relations between the two countries that “is so deep that it will take much time to get out of it.”
Much will depend on whether the United States follows up on agreements reached between Trump and Putin in Hamburg, Germany that Ryabkov said not only would establish a cease-fire zone in southwestern Syria but would form a joint working group on cyber security, and develop a framework for relations that “would rule out interference into domestic affairs and that would be based on the key principle of mutual respect and equality.”