People walk past the Consulate-General of Russia in San Francisco, California on Dec 29, 2016. Russia protested to the United States on Oct 11, 2017 after it said Russian flags were stolen from its consulate in San Francisco, a charge that Washington immediately disputed. (JOSH EDELSON / AFP)
MOSCOW – Russia strongly protested against the removal of Russian flags from its shut-down diplomatic properties in the United States, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Thursday.
We consider this incident as a desecration of the Russian state symbols
Maria Zakharova, Spokeswoman, Foreign Ministry, Russia
"We consider this incident as a desecration of the Russian state symbols," the ministry's spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a news briefing.
She said that agents of US special services removed Russian flags from the Russian trade mission in Washington and the Consulate General in San Francisco, which were seized by the US authorities in September in a series of tit-for-tat actions that form part of the spat between the two countries.
Zakharova said that Moscow considered the removal of its flags as a "hostile step" and was thinking new measures in response to it.
She said that by breaking into the Russian diplomatic properties, the US special services showed that they were ready for Moscow to act in a similar manner.
Zakharova also said that in accordance with an instruction given by President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Foreign Ministry was in the process of selecting a legal firm to start a court proceeding over the seizure of diplomatic properties.
Russian staff left the consulate last month after Washington ordered Moscow to vacate some of its diplomatic properties, part of a series of tit-for-tat actions as relations sour between the two countries.
US officials have since occupied administrative parts of the compound. Russia said last week they had broken into residential areas and it threatened retaliation over what it called an illegal act.
"The latest shameful event. In San Francisco (Russian) flags have been stolen from the building of @ConsulRussiaSF," the Russian embassy to the United States said on its Russian-language Twitter account.
"We demand the American authorities return our state symbols," it said alongside pictures of a bare flagpole on top of the consulate building.
The US State Department offered a different account of events.
"The flags at the former Russian consular properties in San Francisco were respectfully lowered and are safely stored within each of the buildings," a State Department official said in an email.
In December 2016, two Russian diplomatic properties in New York and Maryland used by Russian diplomats were closed by the Obama administration over accusations of alleged Russian hacking during the presidential election.
Russia has drastically scaled down the US diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 people and seized a US dacha and a warehouse in Moscow in retaliation to Washington's actions.