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Trump administration considers easing some sanctions on Russia

Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. (Associated Press)
Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. (Associated Press)

Even as the controversy over Russian meddling in U.S. elections engulfs Washington, the Trump administration is considering easing some punishments the Obama administration levied against Moscow for those alleged abuses, officials said Thursday.

Senior State Department officials are in talks with Russian officials over returning two compounds in the U.S. that the Obama administration seized last December after the intelligence community concluded that Moscow had attempted to interfere in the presidential electoral campaign.

"Those discussions are ongoing," State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. "That is one of the issues, the dachas, that remains an irritant and something that they have certainly asked us to address."

She used the Russian word for vacation villas that wealthy Russians enjoy. 

The two compounds in question are located on New York's Long Island and on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Russia had possessed them since the times of the Soviet Union and said they were used to give rest and recreation to its diplomats and embassy personnel.

But the Obama administration late in December accused the Russians of using them for intelligence-gathering, ordered them vacated and expelled 34 Russians as spies.

Moscow has been demanding return of the properties almost ever since.

It was after the Obama order that Michael Flynn, who would later become President Trump's national security adviser until he was fired, was reported to have been in communication with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. He assured Moscow that policy on sanctions would be reviewed under the new administration.

Those conversations and Flynn's subsequent statements about them are part of the basis of the FBI investigation into Flynn.

"We are working to try to rebuild trust with the Russian government," Nauert said. "There are areas where we can work together.... There are areas in which we don't see eye to eye."

She said the talks about the compounds, which began in May between Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, "are ongoing and, and I anticipate they will continue."

The two officials are expected to meet again later this month in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday in Moscow.

At the time of the first session, Ryabkov said the two had reached agreement on "the most important bilateral issues," according to the official Russian news agency, Tass.

U.S. officials, however, insisted there were no agreements yet.

Several members of Congress, meanwhile, introduced a bill this week that demands the administration not hand back the properties until Russia modifies its behavior.

"It makes no sense to give these facilities back without assurances that these properties were not used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes," said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), sponsor of the bill.

"While investigations trying to answer that very question are still ongoing, returning these compounds to Russia is premature at best and foolish at worst," he said in a statement.

Pascrell named the bill the No Russian Diplomatic Access to Compounds Here in America Act.

It requires the president to submit a report to Congress describing any proposed changes to sanctions before taking action that would grant Russians access to the compounds. It also requires a 120-day review period before the president can waive, suspend, reduce, provide relief from or otherwise limit the application of sanctions related to the compounds.


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