Senior State Dept. official heading to Russia to talk 'irritants'

PHOTO: Thomas A. Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, gives a statement after meeting in Beirut, Lebanon, Sept. 1, 2016. Bilal Hussein/AP Photo
Thomas A. Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, gives a statement after meeting in Beirut, Lebanon, Sept. 1, 2016.

A senior U.S. State Department official will head to Russia on June 23 to meet with his Russian counterpart, part of an ongoing dialogue meant to solve “irritants” in the relationship between the two countries.

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Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon will meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov amid reports that the Trump administration is considering returning to Russia access to two diplomatic compounds in the U.S.

The State Department has declined to say whether the reports are accurate. Secretary Tillerson’s senior adviser RC Hammond would only say, “The U.S. and Russia have reached no agreements.”

“The goal of the meeting is to resolve a laundry list of smaller grievances between the two countries,” he added.

Russian diplomats and their families were expelled from diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland by the Obama administration, in response to the Russian interference in the 2016 election and the harassment of American diplomats in Russia.

Just this week, Tillerson said that President Trump tasked him with restoring relations with Russia, regardless of the political firestorm back home and the multiple investigations into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. To Russia, returning what they see as their property is a key component of doing so.

“The president asked me to begin a re-engagement process with Russia,” Tillerson said in Wellington, New Zealand, Tuesday. “The President has been clear to me do not let what’s happening over here in the political realm prevent you from the work you need to do on this relationship.”

But the idea of returning the compounds has faced strong bipartisan opposition. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham joined three Democratic colleagues – Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Chris Van Hollen – in a letter to the president urging the administration not to return them.

“Returning the compounds to Russian control is unjustifiable,” they wrote. “It would both make it easier for the Kremlin to continue its intelligence operations in our own backyard and make it clear that they can avoid consequences for their actions. We strongly advise against it.”

The summit in St. Petersburg comes after Shannon and Ryabkov held previous talks in New York on May 8 at the behest of their bosses, Tillerson and his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who met in Moscow in April and directed them to deal with the smaller issues dragging down any reconciliation in the relationship.

Those issues include not just the Russian compounds in the U.S., but a new American consulate in St. Petersburg that Russia has frozen construction on, as well as a Russian ban on Americans adopting Russian children and American criticism of Russia’s human rights record. The Trump administration believes that clearing the deck on some of these problems could lead to cooperation on larger issues, like counterterrorism operations in Russia.

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