If this Seattle building is a nest of Russian spies, why didn’t the U.S. close it sooner? | KUOW News and Information

If this Seattle building is a nest of Russian spies, why didn’t the U.S. close it sooner?

Mar 26, 2018

Except for the rock-star parking space reserved for consul-licensed vehicles, you’d never know the Russian consulate in Seattle is inside the One Union Square building, on the 25th floor.

Down in the lobby of the skyscraper, I overheard a man and woman speaking Russian.

I asked them what people in the Seattle area’s Russian community thought of the consulate’s forced closing. The man, who gave his name as Larry, said he was helping a 93-year-old friend in California with some consulate business.

The U.S. shuttered Russia’s other West Coast consulate, in San Francisco, last year.

“Not really surprised, but they’re shocked because of, of everything,” Larry began, until a guard with an Allied Universal Security Services shoulder patch on his black sweater interrupted.

“I’m sorry. No press is allowed in the building at this time,” the guard said politely but firmly. “I’m sorry. You’re going to have to leave.”

I was trying to visit the consulate because the Trump administration said something similar to Russian diplomats in New York and Washington, D.C., and to the Russian consulate in Seattle altogether: You have a week to leave.

“Just got kicked out of the building," I said into my microphone as I headed out a revolving door from the lobby. "Was interviewing Larry, who said the Russian community is in shock at the news, but was not able to stick around long enough to get his last name, and now I’m outside the building.”

So spasibo, Larry, for speaking with me.

The consulate has already started turning away visa and passport applicants.

“Due to the decision by the American authorities to close the Consulate General of Russia in Seattle, as of March 26, 2018, citizen services have been terminated for passport and visa issues and issues of citizenship and notarization,” the consulate’s homepage said (in Russian) Monday morning.

But why would the White House close this outpost, far from the East Coast corridors of power?  

The White House said it was kicking out Russian spies here because of the nuclear submarines and Boeing facilities in Seattle’s backyard.

A screenshot of the Russian consulate's website homepage on Tuesday morning.

“Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America’s national security,” a statement from the White House read.

“That indicates there’s some spying going on from the consulate in those areas,” said arms-control analyst Hans Kristensen with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.

“What’s at the Trident base, the submarine base, by my count, it’s nearly one-third of the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal that’s there,” Kristensen said of the estimated 1,200 nuclear weapons either stored underground or riding on submarines homeported at Naval Base Kitsap, just west of Seattle. “Eight Trident ballistic missile submarines, each of them can carry 20 ballistic missiles, and each of those missiles can be equipped with eight nuclear warheads.”

“It will not have a profound effect,” University of Washington political scientist Don Hellmann said of the consulate closing. “It's symbolic. It's a pain. It's an inconvenience.”

Hellmann said the closure would harm Russian interests less than shuttering the much-larger San Francisco consulate last year.

Kristensen said he was a bit puzzled. If the Seattle consulate has been spying on such important military facilities, why wasn’t it shut down many years ago?

He said submarines from Kitsap, in addition to carrying much of the United States’ nuclear arsenal, are believed to conduct spy missions to eavesdrop on undersea cables and Russian naval bases.

“All countries that have the ability to do these things, they do it,” Kristensen said. “So who knows what triggered the U.S. decision to focus on this particular issue at this time?”