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U.S., Russia Make Little Headway After Latest Talks Over Dispute

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 9/13/2017 Nick Wadhams and Ilya Arkhipov
BC-US-RUSSIA-TALKS © Nick Wadhams and Ilya Arkhipov BC-US-RUSSIA-TALKS

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. used a round of talks with Russia this week to argue it was time to move past a diplomatic spat that’s resulted in consular closures and expulsions of diplomats, but so far neither side is ready to commit to ending their dispute, according to a senior State Department official.

During talks in Helsinki this week, Undersecretary Thomas Shannon argued that the two sides have “done enough damage to each other” and need to focus on areas where they can work together, such as tensions over North Korea and Syria, according to the official, who asked not to be identified because the talks were private. At the same time, Shannon declined to rule out further actions, the official said.

The Helsinki talks marked the third time Shannon has met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as part of efforts to resolve what the two sides describe as “irritants” to the relationship -- including tit-for-tat expulsions and consular closures -- amid a broader bid for better ties. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet in New York next week on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly.

The U.S. official’s description of the day of meetings between Shannon and Ryabkov aligned with Russia’s view of the talks. Ryabkov, in comments to Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency on Tuesday, said he couldn’t say Russia was “entirely satisfied with how this quite tense piece of our dialogue with Americans went.”

U.S. to Shut 3 Russia Diplomatic Sites But Expel No Staffers

The U.S. made the latest move on Aug. 31, directing Russia to shut down its San Francisco consulate and two other buildings in Washington and New York. The order came after Russia directed Washington to cut staff at its diplomatic missions in Russia by 755, or nearly two-thirds.

Russia’s order, in turn, was a response to the Obama administration’s move in late December to expel 35 Russian diplomats over alleged hacking of the 2016 presidential election. Russia has repeatedly denied the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion about the hacking.

The diplomatic stalemate has highlighted how ties between the two nations have only soured further despite President Donald Trump’s repeated vows to seek better relations with Russia. From the war in Syria to tighter sanctions on North Korea, the Moscow and Washington continue to be at odds on key international issues.

“We want our relationship to have already reached its low point,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Sept. 12. “Both of our nations are going forward with the goal to try to improve our relationship and look for areas of mutual cooperation.”

In comments to reporters on Tuesday, Ryabkov argued that the U.S. technically would still need to remove more diplomats to achieve parity on staffing levels, but said no demands for cuts were planned immediately. He did say Russia was considering whether to strip U.S. diplomats of some privileges they get in Russia.

The senior U.S. official said the U.S. hoped to have their diplomatic dispute resolved by the time former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. gains Senate approval to be the next ambassador to Russia. Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov recently moved to the U.S. and met with Trump at the White House.

To contact the reporters on this story: Nick Wadhams in Washington at nwadhams@bloomberg.net, Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at iarkhipov@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, Joe Sobczyk

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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