Yesterday, the San Francisco fire department scrambled a team of firefighters to the city's Russian consulate (scheduled to be vacated today in the latest tit-for-tat diplomatic escalation between the US and Russia) following reports of "blowing smoke" emerging from the building, only to learn that the Russians were engaged in what appears to have been some last minute confidential document "redaction."
Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, explained that the smoke was part of a “mothballing” according to Reuters.
“In relation to this, the windows could be closed, the light could be turned off, the water could be drained out, the heating appliances could be turned off, the garbage could be thrown away, essential services could be turned off and many other things."
Of course, what was really going on was 11th hour document destruction (albeit the old-fashioned way, one not involving a hammer, blackberries, and thousands of deleted emails) and as subsequent events have showed, the Russians had reason to be paranoid: on Saturday, the US unveiled its intention to search the soon to be vacant Russian trade mission in Washington, a move which has infuriated Moscow, prompting Russia to summon the deputy chief of mission of the US Embassy in Moscow to lodge a note of protest over the planned search.
Anthony F. Godfrey was summoned to the ministry on Saturday, it said in a statement, adding that Russian diplomats have been denied access to the trade mission building despite it being owned by Russia and protected by diplomatic immunity.
The ministry called the planned “illegal inspection” of Russian diplomatic housing an “unprecedented aggressive action”, which could be used by the U.S. special services for “anti-Russian provocations” by the way of “planting compromised items”.
“We consider the planned illegal search of Russian diplomatic premises in the absence of Russian officials and the threat we have received to break down the door of the building as an aggressive action, which the US intelligence service may use to orchestrate an anti-Russian provocation by planting compromising items."
Moscow has called on Washington to stop violating international law and refrain from compromising the immunity of Russian missions in the country. Otherwise, retaliation may follow, the ministry warned. On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the FBI was planning to search the general consulate premises, including homes of the diplomatic staff, which would violate diplomatic immunity.
Former US diplomats, questioned the reasons behind the searches, saying it will only lead to a further escalation of tensions. The US authorities are highly unlikely to find “anything of interest” in the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, as there is probably nothing more than “confidential diplomatic materials,” which are supposed to be there anyway, said Ted Seay, a former US diplomat.
“What are our people going to do in your ambassador’s apartments or in the consulate in San Francisco? Look for illegal recipes for borsch? Of course, you have to respond and to go into our consulate in St. Petersburg – looking for what? Perhaps, for too many copies of Doctor Zhivago in the embassy’s library?” John Graham, former US ambassador to Libya, said.
“This foolishness happens [but] it happens usually at the lower levels,” he added. Meanwhile, Seay warned that “things are already too tense between the two countries” and both sides should proceed with “great care. To me, that means again that anyone who is actually planning to raid diplomatic premises in San Francisco, has lost their mind,” the former US diplomat said.