Politics & Government

Washington State lawmakers taken aback by claim of Russian spying

The Trump administration’s sudden closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle out of concerns about espionage at a nearby naval base appears to have caught much of the state’s congressional delegation off guard.

The White House surprised Russia and much of Congress early Monday by announcing the sudden expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and the elimination of the consulate less than a week after President Donald Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his controversial re-election.

The consulate closure was described as part of a coordinated response to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Great Britain earlier this month. But U.S. officials also indicated that espionage concerns at Naval Base Kitsap, the third largest in the United States, and against defense contractor Boeing Corp., played a role.

It’s unclear if there was a specific concern or incident that provoked the inclusion of Kitsap, which is just outside Seattle, in Monday’s announcement. But past and current lawmakers said they had not been told of any particular incident or ongoing concern of espionage beyond the everyday threats.

That didn’t mean they were at odds with the decision, however.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., confirmed she had no advanced warning but said she supported the move, given actions by Moscow. “While decisions about specific consulates or numbers of diplomats are a matter for the State Department and the White House, I’m glad to finally see decisive action,” Murray said in a statement. “Russia’s brazen attempt to murder two people in the U.K. – one of our closest allies – should be condemned and cannot go unanswered.”

The state’s other senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell, said she got a heads up from a White House congressional liaison only moments before the announcement.

“It is unfortunate the consulate had to close, but protecting national security at U.S. military bases must be the highest priority,” Cantwell said in a statement to McClatchy. “I hope U.S.-Russia relations can get on a better track, but the Russians must stop hacking our electric grid and interfering in U.S. elections.”

Added veteran Washington Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, “There’s a lot of problems with Russia and so I’m perfectly okay with expelling diplomats.”

Washington state lawmakers contacted by McClatchy hadn’t previously voiced or been told of concerns about a spy incident or threats involving Kitsap, they said.

“It would have been a surprise to me,” said J. Randy Forbes, a former Republican congressman from Virginia, who from 2012 to 2016 headed the sea-power subcommittee of the House Armed Forces Committee and before that a subcommittee on military readiness.

That’s not to say Russia’s growing military might is not a concern, he cautioned. Earlier this month, the Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov was spotted not far from the U.S. Navy submarine base at King’s Bay, Georgia.

And in February 2017, weeks after Donald Trump became president, that same vessel was in international waters about 30 miles from a U.S. submarine base in Groton, Conn.

But there have not been recent reports of Russian ships or submarines near Kitsap, which is located on more than 10,000 acres and is actually a conglomerate of naval installations just northwest of Seattle. It is home to submarines that carry nuclear warheads.

A spokesperson at the base referred calls to the Defense Department, which also had no comment. The White House did not have an immediate response Tuesday either.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, on Tuesday labeled the global expulsion of her nation’s diplomats “absolutely unjustified aggression.” By late in the day 26 nations had announced explusion of Russian diplomats.

The most constant recent concern about Russia is its slow but steady return under Putin to military strength approaching the Cold War.

“They’re probably about 80 percent of their Cold War strength, and that is a major concern,” said Forbes, adding that prior U.S. national defense strategies underestimated the speed with which Russia and China would build up their naval forces.

This buildup, combined with a lack of democratic challengers to Putin’s long rule, are why President Trump’s attempts to forge a personal relationship with the Russian leader have riled many Democrats and Republicans alike. The White House confirmed last week that Trump did not bring up the nerve-agent poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal when he called Putin and congratulated him on an election victory that has been condemned by rights organizations.

“Russia is not our friend, and it’s been abundantly clear for a long time that the U.S. needs to do far more to punish President Putin and his allies,” said Murray. “That’s exactly why Congress approved sanctions to punish Russia for meddling in our elections.”

Russia last year added to its nuclear-powered Borei-class submarines that carry ballistic missiles capable of striking targets almost anywhere with nuclear weapons. Another Russian vessel, the conventional attack submarine Krasnodar, was used to fire cruise missiles from underwater at targets in the Syrian city of Palmyra, the Wall Street Journal reported last October.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall