In the Spirit of Parity
One year ago, on September 1, the Russian Consulate General in San Francisco was closed under order from US authorities. The order came after Moscow had demanded that "parity" must be reached in the respective numbers of diplomatic personnel between the two states and required that the US reduce its presence in Russia to 455 employees. The demand came in response to the US expelling 35 Russian diplomats half a year earlier.
Washington didn't hesitate to respond and, also citing "parity," demanded that Russia reduced the number of its consulates in the US so that both countries would be equal in that regard, too. The US ordered the Russian Consulate in San Francisco and trade missions in New York and Washington to cease their activities and shut down. Spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Russia Maria Olson expressed hope that it would help prevent the negative trend in relations and would facilitate restoring good relations.
US authorities gave the staff of the Russian Consulate General in San Francisco a two days' notice to move out, which was hardly enough time for the employees to gather documents, so a significant portion was left behind. Despite the constant flow of protest notes from the Foreign Ministry, Russian diplomats were not allowed to collect the archive themselves; it was only returned two months later.
Moscow heavily lambasted the move, accusing Washington of violating the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations as diplomatic documents are inviolable and the host country can't seize them under any circumstances.
Sweep Up of the West Coast
The next blow to diplomatic relations between the countries came in March 2018, when the US expelled 60 diplomats and closed the general consulate in Seattle, the last consulate on the American West Coast, in response to Moscow's alleged involvement in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK. This time, however, Russian diplomats were prepared for the tight schedule to move out.
Russia responded reciprocally by expelling the same number of American diplomats (including Olsen, who had hoped for an improvement in relations) and closed the US Consulate in Saint-Petersburg. But one difference remained — US consulates were still present in all parts of Russia, but residents of the US West Coast in need of the services of Russian consulates were left without a choice but to take an expensive trip to East Coast.
What's Happening to the Closed Consulates?
Despite the fact that the US revoked the consular status of the San Francisco and Seattle buildings, they still legally belong to Russia. However, its diplomats are barred from entering the buildings and are only allowed to check the state of the structures from outside. However, US representatives freely entered the buildings in Seattle and San Francisco just days after Russian diplomats had abandoned them. They claimed that they were merely checking if they had actually been evacuated.
The Russian Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman slammed the searches as yet another violation of the Vienna Convention, as consulate buildings can't be searched without permission by the owner, which had not been given. The US State Department noted that the consulates' status had been revoked and that they thus no longer could be considered protected under the convention. Moscow has been considering addressing a US court to demand the return of the Russian property, but these plans are still in the process of discussion.
Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said that the return of the Russian property should be among the first crucial steps in mending relations between Moscow and Washington. However, the matter has still not been raised by the US. On the contrary, Washington introduced new sanctions against Russia in August.