Jason Corcoran in Moscow -
As Russia warplanes screamed into action on the Syria battlefield and hours after presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama traded unyielding stances on the conflict at the United Nations, the US Embassy in Moscow began on September 30 to raise and fortify its perimeter wall.
Inside the diplomatic compound, which is located opposite Russia’s White House government building on the Krasnopresnenskaya embankment, workmen are adding another four feet of red bricks to a wall which already reaches about 12 feet high. Rolls of razor wire are also being unfurled on the new crest.
Will Stevens, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Moscow, could not be reached for comment about the significance of the construction.
The outer strengthening coincides with other embassy construction work and was likely planned well in advance. But the timing notably overlaps with a dire slump in relations between Washington and Moscow. Previous low points like during the Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 saw angry crowds gather in front of the old, adjacent embassy building, which even drew a botched attack with grenade launchers, as well as a barrage of paint bombs.
Putin’s decision to launch airstrikes against forces opposed to Moscow’s embattled Syrian ally President Bashar al-Assad blindsided Obama, just 48 hours after the two leaders sat down at the United Nations in New York to talk about security in the region. Putin said there is no alternative to cooperating with Assad's regime to fight Islamic State militants, and called for the creation of a broader international anti-terrorist coalition. Obama insists Assad is the chief culprit in a war that has killed 200,000 people and led to millions of refugees fleeing the region.
An unsolicited reposting of this writer’s photograph on Russia's vkontakte social network sparked a lively discussion among mainly Russian users about the reasons for and the effectiveness of the wall extension. "Is [US ambassador John] Tefft expecting an attack?" one asks, drawing a quip that "the planes will accidentally fire off a few on their way back from Syria".
"The wall isn’t so thick and one hit by a Kamaz [truck] would be more than enough [to break through]," ventures another, while a fourth commentator recommends that “In this country of whackos I would electrify the wire too".
The US Embassy in Moscow is typically a focal point for anti-American protest and rallies, which became more frequent since sanctions were introduced 18 months ago by the Obama administration against Russia over the Ukraine conflict.
A recent opinion poll by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center indicated that just over 80% of Russians have negative views of the US, a figure that has almost doubled in just over a year. The Russian government's recent move to shut down the US Embassy's American Culture Center in Moscow after 22 years in operation has also led to a further deterioration of relations on the ground.
Farther afield in the former Soviet space, the US Embassy in Tashkent in Uzbekistan was attacked on September 28 after an unidentified person threw “two improvised incendiary devices on to embassy grounds”, according to a statement from the mission. One of the Molotov cocktails exploded but no injuries were reported. The embassy was closed temporarily as a precaution.
The last major reinforcement of the Moscow premises took place during the 1999 protests against Nato's air assault on Serbia, when concrete barriers were added around the old embassy build during the Balkans campaign, presumably to prevent it from being rammed with car bombs.
During daily scenes of commotion in March of that year, masked attackers unsuccessfully tried to fire two rocket-propelled grenades at the embassy building before dumping the launchers and spraying automatic gunfire at the facade as they drove off.
Mind the bugs, watch the moles
Security at the Moscow embassy hit some critical lows since the Second World War. Setting the benchmark in diplomatic red face intensity was the scandal of the Great Seal bug, one of the first covert listening devices invented which the Soviets embedded in a carved wooden plaque of the Great Seal of the United States and presented to US Ambassador W. Averell Harriman as a "gesture of friendship" in August 1945. The bugged carving hung in Harriman's Moscow residential study until it was exposed in 1952.
A spectacular security failure occurred in the early1980s after Soviet builders turned over a new eight-story chancery building to the State Department that proved to be so heavily bugged that the CIA could not clear the infestation of thousands of devices. A 1987 Senate Committee described it as ''the most massive, sophisticated and skilfully executed bugging operation in history". The building stood unused until 1997 when the upper floors were removed entirely and rebuilt as secure premises that now serve as the new embassy.
In 1987, US Marine Corps embassy guard Clayton Lonetree was sentenced to 30 years in jail for espionage after passing classified information, including names and identities of US undercover agents in the USSR, and layouts of the embassies in Moscow and Vienna to a female KGB operative working as a secretary at the mission. Lonetree served nine years of the sentence before he was released in 1996.
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