Russia expelled two U.S. diplomats in retaliation for a similar move against two Russian diplomats stemming from a bizarre fracas last month between a U.S. diplomat and a Russian guard at the entrance to the U.S. embassy compound in Moscow.
The Russian foreign ministry, citing Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, said in a statement Saturday that one of the expelled U.S. diplomats was involved in the embassy confrontation June 6. Another diplomat was “also a CIA operative,” Ryabkov said, Reuters and the AFP news agency reported.
Ryabkov said the two U.S. diplomats were declared persona non grata.
“We hope that they in Washington will realize all the viciousness of the aggressive anti-Russia line. If they decide there to move on the path of escalation, they won’t be left without a response,” the statement quoted Ryabkov as saying.
In the embassy incident, the American diplomat and Russian guard are shown on surveillance video wrestling and falling to the ground. The video, broadcast last week by Russia’s NTV, shows two men struggling on the ground with the American eventually wriggling to the door and pulling himself inside.
The report claimed that the diplomat was returning from an “intelligence operations” and, NTV alleged, was wearing a cap so that he could not be easily remembered by the taxi driver or Russian guards.
The TV report identified the man as a career CIA officer allegedly working undercover as third secretary in the embassy political department. NTV did not clarify the source of the video.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday two Russian officials were expelled June 17 in retaliation for the “beating” last month of a U.S. diplomat in Moscow.
He said the American was an “an accredited U.S. diplomat.” Kirby declined to comment on the incident, but expressed frustration over the treatment of U.S. diplomats in Russia in recent years.
“We are extremely troubled by the way our employees have been treated over the past couple of years and we’ve raised those concerns at the highest levels,” Kirby told reporters, according to the Associated Press. “Harassment and surveillance of our diplomatic personnel in Moscow by security personnel and by traffic police have increased significantly and we find this absolutely unacceptable.”
Kirby said the attack was “unprovoked and it endangered the safety of our employee.”
State Department officials told Radio Liberty, a news site funded by Congress, that the Russian guard tackled and injured the American after the diplomat showed him his embassy badge.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a different version of the incident, saying the American was a CIA officer working undercover who refused to provide his identification documents and then attacked the Russian guard, not vice versa.
“Instead of letting the (Russian) officer see his ID, the man hit him with an elbow in the face than (sic) pushed him away and fled to the embassy,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, according to Russian state-owned media site RT.
A U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter, told The Washington Post in a report Friday that American authorities examined “a number of videos” of the incident taken from different perspectives, which “clearly show attempts to show his ID, and that he was instantly attacked,” the newspaper reported.
The confrontation was first reported in The Washington Post on June 29 by national security columnist Josh Rogin who cited unidentified U.S. officials in reporting that the guard was a member of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
Under the Vienna convention, host governments provide security outside missions while the nations themselves are responsible inside the mission. In many countries, local police routinely ask for IDs of people approaching foreign compounds. U.S. Marines provide security inside U.S. embassy grounds.
In late June, U.S. State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau said there has been a “longstanding problem” of harassment of U.S. diplomats by what she called “host government service,” an apparent reference to security services. She said Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trudeau also noted that in January, the U.S. withdrew its acceptance of credentials from five of the six Russian honorary consuls in the United States in part because of such “widespread harassment.” She said over the past two years that “harassment and surveillance” of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Moscow by police and security personnel has increased “significantly.”
The incident comes against a backdrop of strains in recent years between Washington and Moscow, including U.S. sanctions against Russia, over the Kremlin’s aggressive policy toward Ukraine, including the annexation of the Crimea. The U.S. has also expressed concern over the buzzing of U.S. vessels by Russian planes during recent NATO naval exercises in the Baltic.