On Thursday afternoon, the Obama administration announced its long-awaited retaliation for what has been characterized as Russian interference in November’s presidential election.
Among the wide-ranging measures, the White House announced that the State Department would be closing two Russian-owned compounds — one in Maryland and one in New York — that it says were used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes. It is also declaring 35 Russians “persona non grata” for their alleged role in intelligence operations.
How hidden were these alleged spy compounds? At least in the case of Maryland, the answer is simple: not very.
The compound in Maryland sits on around 45 acres of land at Pioneer Point, a peninsula where the Corsica and Chester rivers merge — around a 90-minute drive from downtown Washington, by the Eastern Shore town of Centreville in Queen Anne’s County.
The site was purchased by the Soviet government in 1972, and became something of a resort for Soviets living in the United States. It is the former estate of John J. Raskob, a former executive for DuPont and General Motors perhaps best known as the builder of the Empire State Building. The Soviets later added to the estate by making a deal with the State Department, which received two properties in Moscow in return.
At the time of its purchase, there was some resistance to the sale of the building to the Soviets, with the local newspaper reporting there were “fears of nuclear submarines surfacing in the Chester River to pick up American secrets and defectors.”
But by 1974, the New York Times reported that many locals had been won over, with the help of dinner parties and gifts of vodka and caviar. “As far as neighbors are concerned you couldn’t ask for better,” Joe Handley, a former estate manager for Raskob, told The Washington Post in 1979. “They don’t bother anybody.”
A reporter from the local Star Democrat newspaper in Easton visited the site in 1987 — in large part because of the long-standing rumors that it was being used for espionage. The resulting article, also published in The Post, noted the tall chain-link fence outside the compound and the video cameras monitoring the gate, but also the lime-green bungalows, swimming pools and numerous tennis courts.
“Tomorrow we have a game,” one tennis player identified as Yevgeny told the reporter. “We have a tournament with the International Monetary Fund. They have a beautiful team. But this year, God knows who will win.”
After the turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pioneer Point was bought by the Russian Federation — at the time, the Associated Press reported its value was $3 million. Local residents told the AP that they didn’t have any problems with the Russians who visited the compound.
”I live down the road from them. We fish and crab with them. There’s usually one that speaks English for the group,” a woman named as Bonnie Delph told the AP.
The compound has been in the news very little since then. Nine years ago, the Russian ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov, invited a reporter from Washington Life magazine to tour the grounds, explaining that for him it was like the traditional Russian summer house, or dacha, he was used to back home. “Because we have such a hectic life in Washington, we need a place to hide for a while,” his wife, Svetlana, was quoted as saying.
A man who answered the phone for a number listed online for the Pioneer Point compound said it was a wrong number, before adding that he did not speak English.
On Thursday, U.S. officials would not confirm the location of the New York compound being shut down — saying only that it was a 14-acre property on Long Island that had been purchased by the Soviet government in 1954. However, a number of Russia-watching bloggers pointed towards the Killenworth estate on Dosoris Lane in Glen Cove, which acts as the country home for Moscow’s delegation to the United Nations. The grand country house was once owned by American philanthropist George Dupont Pratt.
An adviser to Russian president Vladimir Putin has said the country could be “disconnected” from the global Internet if needed.
The comments by German Klimenko, the Russian president’s Internet adviser, come as the United States is said to be mulling covert cyber-operations against Russia in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Klimenko made his remarks during an interview with theRussian-language RT television channel, whose interviewer asked about a draft law from November that seeks to regulate the Russian Internet.
“In the law we are talking about the protection of critical infrastructure, which should be located in the territory of Russia,” Klimenko said. “For example, hackers can penetrate the structure of commercial banks and steal money. This is bad, but if they enter into the system of the Central Bank, we would be in big trouble.”
Klimenko pointed out that Western powers had cut Crimea off from Google and Microsoft services after the peninsula was annexed from Ukraine by Russia (the companies were complying with U.S. sanctions on Crimea imposed after Russia’s takeover). He suggested that showed why it was necessary for the Russian Internet to work on its own.
“There is a high probability of ‘tectonic shifts’ in our relations with the West,” said Klimenko. “Therefore, our task is to adjust the Russian segment of the Internet to protect themselves from such scenarios.” He added that “critical infrastructure” should be on Russian territory, “so no one could turn it off.”
Adam Segal, an expert in cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Hacked World Order,” said that Klimenko’s comments appeared to be a response to the threat of cyberattacks from the United States. But he doubted Klimenko’s idea of an isolated Russian Internet would work out well.
“A cut-off Internet may still be vulnerable to sophisticated attacks,” said Segal, “and they’d want it to be a very temporary measure.”
Klimenko himself has personally denied any Russian role in U.S. hacking. “Usually these kinds of leaks take place not because hackers broke in, but, as any professional will tell you, because someone simply forgot the password or set the simple password 123456,” he said in comments to Russian state media in June.
But the Russian government has long held a skeptical view of the Internet itself, sometimes suggesting it is a foreign tool used to influence Russian politics. Putin himself once dubbed the Internet a “CIA project.” The Russian press reported in 2015 that domestic Internet service providers (ISPs) had been blocking traffic from various foreign sources to see how the Russian Internet would work without them. It was reported at the time that the tests were ultimately unsuccessful, as many smaller ISPs did not take part.
In November, Russia’s communications regulator blocked access to LinkedIn, a U.S.-based social network for business professionals, for violating a 2014 law that required social networks with Russian users to physically store six months of data on Russian land. Despite the law, a number of foreign social networks — most notably Facebook and Twitter — are not known to comply.
Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s Internet and the co-author of “The Red Web,” downplayed the tone of Klimenko’s comments, suggesting that Putin’s Internet adviser “makes lots of sensational comments, trying to make himself useful.”
But Soldatov added that Russia’s attempts to move away from a U.S.- and Europe-dominated Internet were very real. That’s largely motivated by a desire to have more control of information in Russia and access to data for surveillance purposes — and Russia isn’t alone in that, he said.
“What makes things worse is that it coincides with the new rapprochement with China on cyber that started in 2016, with Chinese and Russian Internet censors exchanging visits and lots of talk how to ‘improve’ the Internet filtering system,” said Soldatov, warning of a disastrous effect on Russian Internet freedoms.