Last December, in retaliation for Russia's hacking campaign against the 2016 Presidential election, former President Barack Obama seized two Russian diplomatic mansions.
One is in New York, and the other is in Maryland.
On Monday, State Department and Russian foreign ministry officials are meeting to discuss the status of these mansions. But it's a controversial topic. Russia is demanding the mansions be returned, but the U.S. believes they are being used for espionage operations. The U.S. intelligence community is firmly opposed to allowing the Russians back in.
Russia knows this, so it is bringing out the fake guns of moral indignation. Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has described the seizure as a "daylight robbery." Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, doubled down by asserting, "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."
The Trump administration should ignore the Russians' pleas.
After all, whatever its claims of moral hardship, the Russian government knows the truth. For a start, they know that the seizure of the mansions was a very limited, weak response to a major assault on American democracy. If anything, the Russians likely celebrated when the compounds were first seized. The Russian perspective would have been, "If this is the only punishment we get, we're set!"
But Russia also knows it was using them to spy. And they know that the U.S. knows. That Russia is so aggressively demanding the mansions return tells us two things.
First, it shows the Russians are optimistic they can extract undue concessions from the Trump administration. Manipulating Trump into accepting their fake Syria cease-fire (which I predicted Putin would offer Trump at their G-20 meeting), Russia is rolling the dice. Diplomacy is about timing, and the Russians believe the time to push is now.
Second, Russia's indignant demands remind us that Putin is the master of diplomatic hypocrisy.
In Moscow, foreign diplomats and journalists are aggressively monitored by Russia's domestic FSB intelligence service. While monitoring of foreign officials is standard practice in most nations, Russia takes its conduct to another level. For one, FSB officers like to leave messages in the apartments of foreign citizens. These messages are sometimes subtle — such as leaving windows open to make clear someone was there — but sometimes include leaving "gifts" in the toilet. Regardless, it is the Russian way of reminding foreigners: "you are on our turf."
For some foreign officials in Russia, things are far worse. If Russia believes that you might be a foreign spy, they may either arrest you (which is a breach of diplomatic law), or simply beat you up. Russian friends of foreign diplomats are also harassed for their kindness.
And around the world, Russian intelligence officers play a constant game of harassment against U.S. officials. For the SVR and GRU (Russia's foreign intelligence services), the Cold War never ended.
Regardless, it is utterly hypocritical for Russia to claim that U.S. diplomatic behavior is "absolutely unacceptable."
In that context, unless and until the Trump administration decides to punish Russia for its election hacking, keeping Russian compounds on lockdown is a bare minimum requirement. Putin thrives on the perception of American weakness. If he senses weakness, he will sense opportunity to escalate further against U.S. interests.