Russia Seeks Release of Suspected Agent, and Presses a Post-Summit Agenda
Posted July 21, 2018 4:20 p.m. EDT
Russia’s foreign minister told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday that charges against a woman accused of infiltrating U.S. political organizations as a covert Russian agent were “fabricated” and she should be released.
The appeal by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was made in a phone call, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. The Department of Justice has charged the woman, Maria Butina, with acting as an unregistered agent of Russia while attending conventions of the National Rifle Association and gaining access to conservative circles in an effort to influence powerful Republicans.
Moscow has mounted a vigorous effort on behalf of Butina. On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry began a social media campaign on its Twitter account, declaring that it was mobilizing a digital “flash mob” to demand her release.
The State Department had no immediate comment on Saturday’s exchange, though it’s unlikely that the United States would suddenly release Butina. In a detailed indictment, the Justice Department has accused her of engaging in a series of deceptions over a number of years.
The phone conversation Saturday also touched on what the Russian Foreign Ministry described as efforts to improve conditions in Syria.
The call came after a week in which Moscow seemed to move forward with what officials here said were “agreements” reached at Monday’s summit between President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump.
With Trump slow to offer an account of his closed-door discussion with Putin, details have instead flowed from Moscow on issues involving the security of Israel and the wars in Syria and Ukraine. The trickle of statements, hints and leaks from Moscow gave the impression that Russian officials were taking the lead in following up on the summit.
Russia’s Defense Ministry, for example, said on Friday it had sent to the United States a proposal to expand cooperation in Syria beyond military “de-conflicting” — ensuring Russian and U.S. forces do not inadvertently target one another — to include the repatriation of refugees and the financing of reconstruction.
“Progress in this area was enabled by an agreement, reached by the presidents of Russia and the United States, during the meeting in Helsinki,” Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev told journalists in a briefing at the Russian general staff headquarters.
The Russian proposal calls for creating a Russian-American group to work on the return of Syrian refugees from Jordan and Lebanon. Mizintsev said the “American side is now working on the Russian proposal” though there was no immediate response to the idea from Washington.
The flow of statements from Moscow at times appeared to catch U.S. officials unaware, and in some instances seemed at odds with American positions.
The U.S. general overseeing operations in Syria, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, said on Thursday he had received no new directions from Washington. And the United States and its European allies have long insisted they will not pay for postwar reconstruction in areas controlled by the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.
Russian officials have also spoken openly of a diplomatic effort to manage the defeat of rebel groups in southern Syria that were once backed by the United States. Trump has offered only hints about that effort.
On Tuesday, Trump said, “We discussed Israel and the security of Israel, and President Putin is very much involved now with us in a discussion with Bibi Netanyahu” — Israel’s leader — “in working something out surrounding Syria.”
Assad’s army, with Russian backing, has pushed into a southern region of Syria along the border of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. The Russians have suggested the diplomacy has focused on excluding troops and proxies of Iran, another ally of Assad, from newly seized land along that border.
Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, said Friday that Moscow and Israel had discussed the border region and had “reached an understanding on how it will look” after the rebels’ defeat. He said the agreement specified that “certain units will abandon the territory,” an apparent reference to Iranian paramilitaries.
In the run-up to the summit, Putin and his diplomats met the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Qatar; senior diplomats from Oman and Jordan; and two close advisers to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But it was unclear what assurances Putin could have offered Trump. Russian Middle East experts said Moscow’s leverage in the messy Syrian civil war was limited despite its efforts to position itself as a broker.
Russian officials also described a proposal by Putin to hold a referendum on the future of Donbas ineastern Ukraine, a coal mining and steel-smelting region that has been gripped by four years of war between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government.
The Ukrainians say any such vote would be manipulated and meaningless as long as Russian troops and Russian-backed paramilitaries control the territory. An election in the war zone would also have to address a thorny issue of voting rights for refugees and internally displaced people.
Putin described the referendum proposal on Thursday to a gathering of Russian diplomats that was closed to the media, but participants soon confirmed his comments to Bloomberg, which first reported the offer. While U.S. officials were silent about the proposal until Friday, there seemed to be little effort to keep it under wraps in Moscow.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told a conference in Moscow on Friday that Putin had offered Trump “specific proposals for resolving this question,” and a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said it was time to “discuss other options” in Ukraine, apparently a reference to a referendum.
On his Twitter account on Thursday, Trump cited talks on Ukraine as part of the “great success” of the summit, but did not offer any clarification.
In a sign of how unnerving Russia’s statements had become, Ukrainian politicians pleaded publicly with the administration to take a stand against the referendum.
“President Putin’s proposals are always deceptive,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former prime minister, wrote on Facebook. “This is a negotiating trap.”
Only on Friday did a spokesman for the National Security Council, Garrett Marquis, finally dismiss the idea. “The administration is not considering supporting a referendum in eastern Ukraine” he said.
Tymofiy Mylovanov, a professor at the Kyiv School of Economics, said the proposal and initial American silence on the matter was dangerous for Ukraine by allowing Russia to appear to “control the narrative,” in Ukraine as elsewhere.