San Francisco: Staff at the Russian consulate in San Francisco began hauling boxes out of the stately building located in a historic area of the city over the weekend, a day after acrid, black smoke was seen pouring from its chimney.
US President Donald Trump ordered the closure of the consulate and other missions in Washington and New York used by the Russian government on Thursday amid escalating tensions between the United States and Russia.
The workers were hurrying to shut Russia’s oldest consulate in the US ahead of a deadline Saturday.
The order to leave the consulate and an official diplomatic residence in San Francisco — home to a longstanding community of Russian emigres and technology workers — escalated an already tense diplomatic standoff between Washington and Moscow, even for those who have long monitored activities inside the closely monitored building.
Russia said it would respond harshly to any US measures designed to hurt it. The warning, from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, came as Russia said it was weighing a response to the US move that will force it to shutter two trade missions in the United States as well as the San Francisco consulate by September 2. “We’ll react as soon as we finish our analysis,” Lavrov told students in Moscow. “We will respond harshly to things that damage us.”
Separately, a top Kremlin aide complained the US demarche pushed bilateral ties further into a blind alley and fuelled a spiral of tit-for-tat retaliatory measures.
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Russian consulate said the closure would hurt both Russian and American citizens needing its services. The consulate issued more than 16,000 tourist visas to American citizens last year, it said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claims US “special services” intend to search the consulate Saturday. She says that the US also plans to search apartments in San Francisco used by Russian diplomats and their families. Zakharova said that involves the families leaving their apartments for 10 to 12 hours so officials can search.
The State Department isn’t commenting specifically on whether officials plan to search the premises. But the State Department said as of Saturday, access to the consulate will only be granted with State Department permission.
It had no comment on the black smoke coming from the embassy in San Francisco, which triggered a visit from the San Francisco Fire Department.
Firefighters who arrived at the scene were turned away by consulate officials who came from inside the building. An Associated Press reporter heard people who came from inside the building tell firefighters that there was no problem and that consulate staff were burning unidentified items in a fireplace.
Mindy Talmadge, a spokeswoman from the San Francisco Fire Department, said the department received a call about the smoke and sent a crew to investigate but determined the smoke was coming from the chimney.
Talmadge said she did not know what they were burning on a day when normally cool San Francisco temperatures had already climbed to 95 degrees by noon.
“It was not unintentional. They were burning something in their fireplace,” she said.
American counterintelligence officials have long kept a watchful eye on Russia’s outpost in San Francisco, concerned that people posted to the consulate as diplomats were engaged in espionage.
“There is finally the realisation by the administration that Russians have been involved in intelligence operations at this consulate, which they have been doing for decades,” said Rick Smith, a veteran FBI special agent who previously headed the bureau’s Russian counterintelligence squad in San Francisco. “It’s almost 50 years of history and part of a tit-for-tat, but this is more like a hammer.”
In addition to Consul Sergey Petrov, the consulate’s website showed 13 other Russian officials working at the San Francisco post. When approached Friday, Petrov declined to answer questions about the closure or about what was being burned inside.
Sasha Sobol was among the crowd who went to the consulate Friday morning to renew a Russian passport, but was told the document wasn’t ready and turned away by early afternoon.
“It’s really too bad because now we are going to have to go to Seattle or Houston,” said Sobol, a resident of Sunnyvale with joint US-Russian citizenship.
Trump, battling allegations his associates colluded with Russia, signed new sanctions on Moscow into law this month which had been drawn up by Congress. When it became clear those measures would become law, Moscow ordered the United States to cut its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia by more than half, to 455 people.
Lavrov hinted on Friday that Russia might look at ordering further reductions in US embassy staff, suggesting Moscow had been generous last time by allowing Washington to keep “more than 150” extra people.
He said Russia had cut the US numbers to tally with the number of Russian diplomats in the United States, but that Moscow had generously included more than 150 Russian staff who work at Russia’s representation office at the United Nations.
Lavrov said Moscow still hoped for better relations and blamed Trump’s political foes for the deteriorating situation. “I want to say that this whole story with exchanging tit-for-tat sanctions was not started by us,” Lavrov said. “It was started by the Obama administration to undermine US-Russia relations and to not allow Trump to advance constructive ideas or fulfil his pre-election pledges.”
Barack Obama, then outgoing president, expelled 35 suspected Russian spies in December and seized two Russian diplomatic compounds. President Vladimir Putin paused before responding, saying he would wait to see how Trump handled Russia. “We thought this administration could exercise common sense, but unfortunately the Russophobes in Congress are not allowing it to,” said Lavrov, who complained that the United States had only given Moscow 48 hours to comply with its latest demands.