The Russian Consulate in Seattle was ordered by the Trump administration to cease operations. A State Department official said the government was inspecting the consul's residence on Wednesday.
Officials with the U.S. Department of State drilled out the lock on a front gate to the former Russian Consulate residence in Seattle’s Madison Park Wednesday morning and entered the mansion.
Hidden behind a blue tarp, a locksmith worked for about 15 minutes to open the gate about 9 a.m. Then U.S. officials moved on to the residence’s front and basement doors before gaining access to the diplomatic outpost.
The scene unfolding at 3726 E. Madison St. comes a day after Russian diplomats left the residence; they had been ordered to vacate it last month by the Trump administration. The consulate office in downtown Seattle closed earlier this month.
At midday Wednesday, the Russian flag still flew over the building, and flies buzzed around cans and bags of garbage that were left in an alley next to the residence. Shredded paper with Russian writing was among the rubbish.
The 12,500-square-foot residence, more than a century old, is a prime piece of Seattle real estate that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It faces an uncertain future amid chill relations between the U.S. and Russia.
“We believe that one day it will be returned to us,” said Nikolay Pukalov, head of the consular division of the Russian Embassy. “Our flag is above this property and it will remain there.”
A State Department official said Wednesday that the government was conducting an inspection of the residence “to secure and protect the facilities and to confirm the Russian government personnel had vacated the premises.” The official also said that the Russians own the residence but that the U.S. government owns the land where the building sits.
The closure of the Seattle consulate was announced last month amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia. It was part of a broader response in the West to allegations that the Kremlin was involved in the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England.
In the U.S., the Trump administration ordered 60 Russian diplomats to leave, including a dozen at Russia’s mission to the United Nations. Administration officials said the U.S. government was acting jointly with European nations, and was sending a message to Russia’s leaders about the “unacceptably high” number of Russian intelligence operatives in the U.S.
The consulate closure and expulsions were condemned by Russian government officials, who said that diplomatic staff targeted for expulsion worked in space, science, trade, culture and other areas.
“Officially the consular general has stopped working,” said Pukalov, who was standing outside the residence Wednesday, watching and taking pictures. “Of course we feel very sorry about this event because the American public as well as Russian citizens here are left without consular assistance, and that will make things more difficult for ordinary people.”
Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy tweeted Wednesday morning that the U.S. State Department is “preparing to invade Russian diplomatic property.” The embassy also tweeted that diplomatic personnel left Seattle on Tuesday morning for Washington, D.C., and that they locked the residence “but retained the keys” because the facility is “property of Russia.”
— Russia in USA (@RusEmbUSA) April 25, 2018
That didn’t stop U.S. officials from accessing the property. Three State Department cars were outside the home Wednesday. Officers with the department declined to identify themselves, but their uniforms read “U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Security.” Three Seattle Police Department patrol cars also arrived at the scene after drilling began.
The consulate was opened in December 1992, and was the first new Russian consulate in the U.S. in the post-Soviet era. It was part of a broader thaw in relations in a year when then-presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin met at Camp David and declared a new era of “friendship and partnership.”
In December of 1993, The Seattle Times reported that the Russian government would buy the Madison Park mansion for a residence.
“We searched Seattle from the bottom to the attic” to find suitable housing, then Russian consul Eugene Smirnov told the newspaper.
King County property records show the consulate property was sold by a couple to the U.S. government in 1994. A county official reaffirmed Thursday that the U.S. bought the property and there was no indication of Russian ownership. The official also said the property was tax exempt, but that the Russians were assessed fees on the property.
Pukalov, with the Russian Embassy, said the U.S. is breaking its own laws, as well as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, in accessing the property.
The three-story mansion sits on a 1/2 acre lot and includes beautiful gardens and has been used for receptions and other events over the years. Michael Doyle, a managing broker at Windemere Seattle, said that it is in a fantastic location, and the market value could be about $8 million.
It is the latest piece of U.S. real estate to be caught up in diplomatic clashes between the Russia and the U.S.
A 45-acre Russian retreat on Maryland’s eastern shore was closed by the U.S. government in 2016. It sits empty except for a security detail from the State Department, according to Kevin Hall, a McClatchy Newspapers reporter who kayaked by the property last fall.
In San Francisco, a 1920s-era mansion serving as a consulate was shuttered in September by the Trump administration. That property is owned by the Russian government, according to San Francisco County records.
In Seattle, in the months ahead, the State Department is expected to continue to be responsible for securing the consulate residence.
Seattle Times staff reporters Jessica Lee and Mike Rosenberg contributed to this report.
Correction, 3 p.m. Thursday, April 26: This story was updated to include information from a King County official, who said the Russian Consulate residence was bought by the U.S. government and that there was no indication that the Russians owned the property. The official also said that the Russians were assessed fees on the tax-exempt property.