In the third month of Donald Trump’s presidency, Vladimir Putin dispatched one of his diplomats to the State Department to deliver a bold proposition: The full normalization of relations between the United States and Russia across all major branches of government.
The proposal, spelled out in a detailed document obtained by BuzzFeed News, called for the wholesale restoration of diplomatic, military and intelligence channels severed between the two countries after Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
The broad scope of the Kremlin’s reset plan came with an ambitious launch date: immediately.
By April, a top Russian cyber official, Andrey Krutskikh, would meet with his American counterpart for consultations on “information security,” the document proposed. By May, the two countries would hold “special consultations” on the war in Afghanistan, the Iran nuclear deal, the “situation in Ukraine,” and efforts to denuclearize the “Korean Peninsula.” And by the time Putin and Trump held their first meeting, the heads of the CIA, FBI, National Security Council and Pentagon would meet face-to-face with their Russian counterparts to discuss areas of mutual interest. A raft of other military and diplomatic channels opened during the Obama administration’s first-term “reset” would also be restored.
"This document represents nothing less than a road map for full-scale normalization of US-Russian relations,” said Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, after reviewing the proposal provided by BuzzFeed News.
Besides offering a snapshot of where the Kremlin wanted to move the bilateral relationship, the proposal reveals one of Moscow’s unspoken assumptions – that Trump wouldn’t share the lingering US anger over Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and might accept a lightning fast rapprochement.
“It just ignores everything that caused the relationship to deteriorate and pretends that the election interference and the Ukraine crisis never happened,” said Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer on Russia during the George W. Bush administration who also reviewed the document.
As of today, only a small fraction of the dozens of proposed meetings have taken place — and many of the formalized talks appear unlikely to happen as Moscow and Washington expel one another's diplomats and close diplomatic facilities in a tit-for-tat downward spiral.
The Russian Embassy in Washington declined to discuss the document. “We do not comment on closed bilateral negotiations which is normal diplomatic practice,” the embassy said in a statement.
Officials at the White House and State Department declined to say who delivered the document but did not dispute its authenticity. They denied giving the Russians explicit indications that their proposal was feasible. When asked how Moscow got the impression that its terms might be acceptable, a spokesperson for the National Security Council cited misleading news reports about Trump’s infatuation with Russia. “Frankly, I would point more to media coverage than administration overtures,” the spokesperson said.
This is what Putin thought he was going to get for his trouble and effort in helping Trump win. Poor Vlad should have known Trump always screws his partners, investors, and contractors over in the end, but then again so does Vlad and sometimes those guys end up...well...you know.
Anyway, if there were somehow any doubts or misconceptions about what Putin expected from Trump, those just got put to rest.
And speaking of Russia and swaying the election in favor of Trump, they had to be doing it from somewhere after all. Our good friends the Russians have long had a UN diplomatic compound in the Bronx and there's new scrutiny on activities going on there.
Russian diplomatic buildings have come under increased public scrutiny in the past year. After the U.S. accused the Kremlin of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Obama administration closed several Moscow-owned compounds, saying Russia had used them for intelligence purposes. When the Donald Trump administration took over, the U.S. further retaliated as Congress passed new sanctions against Moscow, prompting Russian vows to expel hundreds of American diplomats back home. That led the U.S. to another reprisal, this time closing Russia’s consulate general in San Francisco, along with two other buildings, one in Washington, D.C., and the other in New York.
The residency in the Bronx, however, remains open, even though former U.S. and Russian intelligence officials suspect Moscow used it as part of the 2016 election operation. Steve Hall is one of them. He’s a retired chief of Russian operations for the CIA who oversaw the agency’s clandestine service in Moscow until last year. “It would be very likely that some of the activities that are now coming to light from the 2016 election cycle were indeed authored or supported by the Russian mission,” he says. “Not only in New York but also Washington and perhaps other places as well.”
Complex operations require a safe haven, Hall says, somewhere people can live and communicate over a secure line back to Moscow. “If you’re doing cyberoperations,” he says, “you have to have a place where that equipment, those computers and those systems, can function.”
A former Russian intelligence operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the subject’s sensitivity, agrees. “If an officer records an asset speaking during a private meeting, they may use this building to send that [conversation] back to Moscow, who will tell them if that asset is lying to them or is an informant.” He adds that the facility’s privacy and its close proximity to the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan make it the perfect place to host introductory meetings and other intelligence-related conversations.
“What the Russians do in the United States is what you saw in 2016—they recruit and run assets,” says Naveed Jamali, a former double agent for the FBI who worked against Moscow in the 2000s. “They’re looking for people who are upwardly mobile with access, who may be able to influence policy.”
Former FBI officials, who also asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record, say New York is the perfect location for Russia to recruit such assets and conduct intelligence operations. Moscow has an abundance of diplomatic facilities in the city, which allows it to protect more spies under diplomatic immunity than anywhere else in the country. The more diplomats Russia can place in a region, the easier it is to expand intelligence operations without American scrutiny. “Anywhere that there’s a Russian consulate,” says Jamali, “it is safe to assume that there are Russian spy handlers.”
And if the U.S. ever tried to raid or shut down the facility, the former Russian operative claims, the residency—like other diplomatic facilities—is equipped with an incinerator to destroy sensitive documents. “If you were wondering why the annex in San Francisco had a cloud of black smoke above it [recently], it’s because the U.S. was inspecting the building [the next day],” he says.
Of course we have diplomatic compounds in Moscow and Russia too and the Russians are well aware of CIA spying there, but the question is how many of these compounds in the US played a role in Trump's win last November?
Finally, we revisit an old friend, Gen. Michael Flynn, to check to see how quickly the walls are closing in around him.
Democrats in Congress believe retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn illegally concealed more than a dozen foreign contacts and overseas trips during the process of renewing his security clearances, omissions they considered so serious they forwarded their findings to special counselRobert Mueller.
“It appears that General Flynn violated federal law by omitting this trip and these foreign contacts from his security clearance renewal application in 2016 and concealing them from security clearance investigators who interviewed him as part of the background check process,” Reps. Elijah Cummings and Eliot L. Engel, both Democrats, wrote in a letter to Flynn’s attorney obtained by ABC News on Tuesday.
The letter, a copy of which can be read below, highlights new information House investigators collected from executives at three private companies advised by Flynn in 2015 and 2016. The companies were pursuing a joint venture with Russia to bring nuclear power to several Middle Eastern countries and secure the resulting nuclear fuelbefore Flynn joined then-candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail.
In other words, there's a solid chance that Michael Flynn was working for the Russians before joining the Trump campaign as a foreign policy expert, and that he continued to do so after being named Trump's National Security Adviser. What was he up to with the Russians in the Middle East consulting on nuclear technology?
Maybe Mueller knows. We'll see.