Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has suggested that Moscow and Washington are close to an agreement that would restore Russian access to two diplomatic compounds seized in December by then-President Barack Obama’s administration.
But Ryabkov later indicated that a deal was not imminent following his talks with U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon, and the State Department said on July 18 that "more work needs to be done " to mend badly strained ties.
Ryabkov initially spoke in response to a reporter's shouted question after his meeting with Shannon in Washington on July 17. According to CNN, Ryabkov was asked, “Did you get your compounds back?” He responded: “Almost, almost.”
On July 18, however, Ryabkov said, "You know, 'almost' doesn't count -- so we will continue to work on it."
He said that Russia had "warned the Americans that we need the unconditional return of the property; otherwise retaliatory measures will follow."
A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry on July 18 said that Shannon and Ryabkov discussed the diplomatic compounds, but made no mention of any outcome.
"The search for solutions to problems that have built up, including those linked to the illegal seizure...of U.S. real estate belonging to Russia, was continued," the ministry said.
It said Ryabkov underscored that Russia reserves the right to respond in kind "if Washington does not remove this and other irritants."
The State Department statement made no specific mention of the diplomatic compounds.
Shannon's discussion with Ryabkov about "areas of mutual concern" was "tough, forthright, and deliberate, reflecting both parties’ commitment to a resolution," it said.
"The United States and Russia seek a long-term solution that would address areas of bilateral concern that have strained the relationship. The talks reflected a spirit of goodwill, but it is clear that more work needs to be done," the U.S. statement said.
It said that Shannon and Ryabkov had committed to holding future talks on the implementation of the 2010 New START nuclear arms treaty and broader issues of strategic stability, and would "exchange scheduling proposals in the near future."
Obama ordered the seizure of the compounds in Maryland and New York, and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, in response to what he said were Russian efforts to influence the U.S. presidential election and mistreatment of U.S. diplomats in Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised many in both countries by declining to retaliate -- a gesture to then-President-elect Donald Trump, who had repeatedly indicated during the campaign he would seek to improve ties with Moscow.
But relations remain tense amid multiple investigations into what the U.S. intelligence community says was an "influence campaign" ordered by Putin in an attempt to help Trump and denigrate his Democratic rival on the November 8 ballot, Hillary Clinton.
Russian officials have stepped up their calls for the unconditional restoration of access to the diplomatic compounds, saying Moscow's patience is running out.
They have threatened to retaliate and indicated their actions would depend heavily on the outcome of the meeting between Shannon and Ryabkov.
Hours before the meeting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that any U.S. preconditions for the return of the property would be unacceptable for Moscow.
"We consider it absolutely unacceptable to place conditions on the return of diplomatic property. We consider that it must be returned without any conditions and talking," he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that what he called U.S. attempts to set preconditions amounted to "daylight robbery."
He said that "anti-Russian sentiment" in the United States meant it was not certain that Moscow and Washington could agree on key global issues.
Obama sought to "reset" troubled relations with Moscow after he entered office in 2009, but ties were badly strained by Moscow's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and support for separatists whose war against Kyiv's forces has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014, among other issues. Relations were further damaged by Moscow's alleged interference in the U.S. election.
The talks between Ryabkov and Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, had been scheduled for June but Russia cancelled them, citing new U.S. sanctions linked to the conflict in Ukraine. The new date for the talks was set after Trump and Putin met for the first time, on July 7, on the sidelines of a Group of 20 (G20) meeting in Germany.
With reporting by cnn.com, TASS, Reuters, and AFP