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MOSCOW — The lids of the barbecue grills in the backyard of an unassuming wooden house outside Moscow were still open on Friday morning, apparently ready for grilling on this unseasonably warm summer day. Picnic tables next to a swing set and jungle gym were uncovered and clean.
The house, nestled in the Silver Forest outside Moscow, has long been a leafy getaway for American diplomatic staff members serving in Russia. But now the house, which looks like it could have been transplanted whole from Maine, Michigan or Vermont, is at the center of an angry diplomatic row between Washington and the Kremlin that is escalating quickly.
On Friday morning, the Russian foreign ministry announced that Moscow is seizing this country property, which Russians call a "dacha," meaning country retreat, and a storage facility in Moscow, in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on Russia passed by the Senate on Thursday and sent to President Donald Trump's desk for a signature.
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"The use of all the storage facilities on Dorozhnaya street in Moscow and the country house in Serebryany Bor will be suspended from use by the U.S. Embassy,” the foreign ministry statement said. “Russia reserves the right to resort to other measures affecting U.S.' interests on a retaliatory basis."
On a visit to Finland yesterday, President Vladimir Putin hinted a Russian response might be coming to what he called the “anti-Russian hysteria” in the United States.
“We have seen a lot of provocation — illegal diplomatic property seizure, illegal sanctions that contradicting W.T.O. norms," Putin said, referring to the World Trade Organization. "We practice restraint with this, but someday we’ll have to answer to such hostility."
The properties, which Russia says must be vacated by end of the month, aren’t the only causalities in this diplomatic row. The Russian foreign ministry said “hundreds” of American diplomatic staff members will have to leave the country by Sept. 1 in order to bring down the number of Americans stationed in Russia to 455, the same number of Russians working at diplomatic facilities in the United States.
In one of his final acts in office, President Barack Obama expelled dozens of Russian diplomats and seized two Russian compounds as punishment for what U.S. officials said was Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. With Donald Trump only months away from his inauguration, Putin refrained from responding at the time.
Two U.S. officials told NBC News that at least one of the Russian compounds sized by the U.S. was used for espionage, packed with equipment the Russians removed before handing it over. It is possible the American compound outside of Moscow was also used for spying, but so far NBC News has not seen any activity suggesting a cleanup of sensitive equipment.
On Friday, Russia said it is prepared to escalate the property seizures and expulsions further.
“In the event of further unilateral action on behalf of U.S. officials to reduce the Russian diplomatic mission in the U.S., we will respond accordingly," the foreign ministry statement said.
Andrei Klimov, a senior member of the Russian parliament’s foreign relations committee, said he believes the whole dispute is based on American domestic politics.
“(Trump) is prisoner in White House,” he said in his office in the Russian parliament building, describing Trump as under siege by Congress.
“I'm not sure if Mr. Trump, he has somebody other than his family and friends of his family, and maybe his own bodyguards and that's it,” Klimov said.
Congress has launched several investigations in Russian interference into the US elections, and a special counsel is also investigating. U.S. intelligence agencies have unanimously blamed Russia for using hacks and disinformation to influence the vote.