What Will Happen To the US Embassy In Russia?

When a Russian journalist called me in the evening last week to ask what I thought about the US Embassy in Russia closing, I thought it was a joke, and I told him as much.

The idea of the US Embassy in Russia “closing” is an exaggeration to be sure, but there have been difficulties, even for US citizens over the past year.

For example, last spring, we wrote the US Consulate in Moscow that our 15-year old son’s passport was about to expire and that we needed to come in to renew it. We immediately received an automated message that the consulate was only receiving folks like us on an emergency basis and that we should basically give up on ever hoping to grace the premises of the US State Department’s headquarters in Moscow. My wife countered that disconcerting message with a somewhat drily worded dispatch: “A 15-year-old American will be living in Russia without a passport. What needs to happen to constitute an emergency?” To the consulate’s credit, we were in for an appointment about 2 weeks later.

American flag close-up on the beautiful historic building of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow Russia. I’ll never understand why it is perpetually twisted around the pole like this.

It was a strange visit. The State Department seemed to spare no expense when building the new consulate in Moscow. And the glass windows for receiving lines of Russians, eager to visit the “land of the free and the home of the brave” seemed to stretch into the horizon in the gleaming modern interior.

Unfortunately, the queues of eager visa-seekers could only be seen in my imagination, as the whole area was occupied by my wife, me, and an elderly gentleman who seemed to be somewhat lost. Of course, there was the usual security at the front gate with the (how do these people get these jobs?!?) outrageously crabby Russian guard.

When we knocked at one of the windows to announce our arrival, I could swear the echo went off to somewhere just shy of Kamchatka as I watched some tumbleweed blowing through the office in the back. Well, to be serious, it was very odd to see maybe 5 staff working in such a massive office complex.

Off-topic: I just made the mistake of looking up information on the new office building. It cost us $281 million USD, according to this page on the embassy site. On the positive side (if there is any), I have used this particular building as an argument to show my Russian friends that closing up visa service to Russia was most certainly not in the plans of the US State Department.

In any case, we were happy to get our son his passport, and the whole episode was quickly forgotten until I received the call from this Russian journalist.

I tried to diplomatically tell the journalist that he was full of baloney for even suggesting a closing of the US Embassy. He then asked me to say how a US Embassy closing in Russia would affect me hypothetically. And other than needing to renew passports every ten years, I couldn’t think of a single blessed effect on me.

You see, most embassies in Russia have some sort of relationship with their citizens who live locally, creating national holiday events, for example. But not the US Embassy. I’ve lived in Russia for nearly 23 years and can say, except for a dinner in Perm when the US ambassador visited about 20 years ago, the Embassy has made no effort to build a relationship. It’s sort of like the US State Department and Americans in Russia live in parallel universes, our paths never crossing, as we move through space and time. They do send out alarmist e-mails about the dangers of even thinking about Russia, but I unsubscribed from that list about 15 years ago. Too much stress and ado about nothing.

The Russian consulates are currently processing visas for Americans to come to Russia. Meanwhile, the State Department has given Russia “homeless status”, perhaps with the thought that this monicker would improve relations, and recommended that Russians apply for visas to America in Warsaw.

The situation isn’t simple and has to do with a limited number of allowed employees in some sort of squabble between our two nations that Bloomberg can explain better than I can. But it’s also sort of strange that it matters to Russians more than Americans living locally.

My thoughts on the matter, together with some of my fellow Americans’ (where do they find these guys lol?) views can be found here. The article is in Russian, but Google can help you with translation if you need it.

In my humble opinion, the relationship between our two countries has all too often been based on reciprocity, without one country or another taking the lead. That is why I find it refreshing that the Russian consulates are processing visas for Americans. That is good both for the Americans, and for Russia, as literally every American I have met in Russia has stated that it is way better than they had been told or thought before. That is soft power.

And here’s to us putting this spat behind us, and the US Embassy in Moscow returning to normal… at least for the next time one of my kids needs a passport.

How US Sanctions Against Russia (Don’t) Work And Hurt Americans

“Russia will not change its course because of sanctions”.

It was nearly two years ago, and I agreed to go on a Russian political talk show.  Little did I know that this situation would become very personal for me.

At that time, Russia and the United States seemed to be caught in a game of who could do the most petty trick against the other.  Shutting down diplomatic presence, for example, really means nothing to anyone except for those who are simply trying to live their lives, and happen to have a connection between the two countries.

To put it simply on how sanctions don’t work: Regardless of your political views, I think it’s clear:  Russia has ZERO intention of giving up Crimea, or apologizing for any alleged interference in any election process, even if it did buy some Facebook ads.

If you’re American and reading this, you also know that the US government has ZERO intention of changing its opinion of Russia anytime in the near future.  And to give you an idea of how ineffective sanctions are, some of you are only right now learning that Russia has also created sanctions against the US.

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I’m no Trump supporter, but he does make for a great GIF. 🙂

With the background of flooding in Houston, I suggested a constructive approach on the talk show but was fairly quickly shouted down.  The man I argue with in this short clip is Greg Weiner.  He moved from Russia to the States, lived there for some time, and now represents the USA on Russian political talk shows.:

I didn’t last long as a political talk show personality.  It seems I didn’t have a strong enough position for or against America or Russia.  My stance of judging each situation separately, not taking sides, and offering constructive solutions apparently didn’t make for very good television.

If you want more in-depth political analysis on how sanctions don’t work, you can check out this Forbes article that I just stumbled upon.  Because this is now about how this became personal for me, an American in Russia.

Again, at the time of my talk show adventures, I didn’t take the sanctions very seriously.  I saw that the sanctions were pointed at a small group of people and businesses, none of which I have any relation to, and to repeat myself: why take anything seriously if it produces zero result?

As regular readers know, I don’t just blog:  I run a Moscow real estate agency, wrote a book in Russian, run a Russian language YouTube channel, and help Russian businesses grow their business in the West.

But my view on sanctions changed this year when I decided to also start a small trucking company in Russia.  Together with a Russian business partner, we created a business plan, and I quickly saw the clear upside.  I then showed it to my brother Tim back in Ohio, and he also saw the potential.  Tim’s LLC, that he had used for various side hustles in the past, became a partner in the Russian trucking company, and made a no-interest loan to the Russian company.  The amount wasn’t small or big, but we saw that leveraging the amount through Russian bank financing, we could start our small business off with three 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks.  That’s when the problems began.

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Our first truck, but we currently have no way to make any payments back to our US partner… because of American regulations that have caused our American partner’s bank accounts to be shut down.

We were put under some fairly heavy scrutiny in Russia.  Although it was stressful at the time, in retrospect, the Russian tax authorities’ concerns were not baseless, and actually had our American partner’s interests in mind.  It seemed they were mainly concerned that we were really going to do business with the money that came in from the no loan contract and not planning some fraud like bankrupting the company and running away with cash.

After we had worked through all of this on the Russian side, problems began for Tim.  The bank that he used in Ohio, and asked him to close his accounts.  He asked why, and they refused to give an answer.

We realized that something strange was afoot, but weren’t sure how to proceed.  Tim then went to 3 or 4 more banks in Ohio, and they all refused to open an account for him.  Again, they refused to give an explanation.  This was maddening for me.  If nothing else, this is not the America that I know.  If a business is refusing to serve its customers, it should be able, or even required, to give a reason.

We found out about an organization called OFAC.  This is the Office of Foreign Assets Control.  Tim called OFAC.  In short, after that phone call we were relieved to understand that we were not somehow unwittingly involved in anything illegal, but concerned to hear that because of regulations, banks simply do not want to have anything to do with servicing any business account with any connection to Russia.

My conclusion:  Neither government has changed its views one iota because of the sanctions.  There are issues for businesses, but big business is mostly unfazed.  But here we are, small business, working to develop a life for ourselves and our families, and to create jobs, and we are the ones suffering the most because of the sanctions.

I do not even blame OFAC for this.  They are simply following the procedures created by legislators.

What I am suggesting is dialog.  And I strongly recommend and even beg US legislators to re-consider how your legislation is hurting small business ventures between our nations.  This serves no purpose for business, and I dare say serves no purpose even for your supposed agenda of spreading “American democratic values”.  You have failed, and you need to set it right.

Because when you have no qualms with buying Russian gas and oil, but Americans in both in the USA and in Russia become the main victims of your half-baked policy, your hypocritical absurdity becomes clear to all.  You are involved in a series of “petty tricks” that serve no purpose except to save face in front of your constituents, and in the end hurt small business and those folks who genuinely want to develop constructive ties between our nations.

P.S.  This situation has forced me to pay more attention to politics than I really care to.  But while the lawmakers do what they do, we have a business to run and obligations to fulfill, so this text is also a request for help.  If you have experienced a similar situation with US banks and know how to navigate the way out, I would really appreciate any tips or insight.  Thanks!

Did Russia Meddle With US Elections?

Probably I shouldn’t blog about politics ever.  And usually I can hold my peace.  Because I believe 99% of it is hype to fill up the time between commercials on the 24/7 news channels.

But I have been thinking about this blog post for a few months now, so here goes.

Did Russia meddle with the US elections?  Here is my answer: I have no idea.  And neither do you.

But perhaps a better question would be “Would Russia meddle with the US elections if it had the chance?”.  Um, well, if given the chance, I wouldn’t put it past them.

And I am quick to add, I wouldn’t put it past the United States of America to meddle with nearly every significant foreign election in recent memory.

The second question would be “what is Russia trying to communicate to America?”.  I will take a stab at that in a moment.

I was convinced Hillary would win.  I didn’t think for a second that Mr. Trump had a chance.  Shows how well I understand politics.  Even with my misguided views, I was invited to do an interview on the eve of the election with Russia’s Rossiya-24 channel.

After the interview, I was heading home on the commuter train when I received a mysterious invitation to “An event at an undisclosed location.  The location would be announced only immediately before the event was to begin.”  I sort of thought that the “event” might include me digging a shallow hole in the woods.  But my wife said, “That’s cool.  You should totally go”.  So, I did.

It’s sort of difficult to describe what the event was.  I guess it was like a pro-Trump/pro-Kremlin election watch party.  The speeches seemed to be very pro-Trump and anti-American government.  But the main idea was a simple belief that Trump was the one who could improve Russia-US relations.  I was asked if I would like to give a speech.  I explained that, uh, I felt that probably nobody there wanted to hear my opinion on Trump. Although I was no supporter of Hillary either.

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This painting was one of the main features of the Trump watch party

It was an interesting couple of weeks around the elections.  It seemed the Russian people were euphoric about Obama’s exit and were convinced that Trump would improve the relations between our nations.

During that time, I talked to a lot of folks.  And I guess I could say this is a list of things, in no particular order, the Russian people would want America to know (now that we have your attention).

 

Not saying that I agree with all of this, but I think it is helpful for Americans to understand.  Because I have heard many of these points not just from Russians, but from folks I’ve met from many nations around the world.:

  1. Russians want better relations with the United States.  It also seems they want it on their terms, just as America (1st) wants these improved relations on its terms.  Not sure how that is supposed to work, but I believe there is a real desire for improvement of relations.  Even at the awkward pro-Kremlin watch party, I sensed a sincere desire for improved relations, and a real concern for America.
  2. It’s strange for you to be indignant about any meddling in your elections.  No one outside of the United States believes that the US isn’t getting their fingers in all of the pies.
  3. 800 Foreign Military Bases is a slight overdo.  Maybe we could tone it down just a bit… and save some cash!
  4. The price of oil being attached to the dollar is unfair.  That’s a really long conversation.  Google it, if you’re interested to learn more.
  5. America’s democracy isn’t really a democracy.  Elections are controlled by corporations, etc.

And maybe this is the moment when I can mention perhaps the one thing I don’t love about Russia.  That is, I don’t love it when Russia blames America for things.  I don’t love it, because I believe that Russia is a powerful nation, so the actions of other nations shouldn’t affect it.  And in years past when my Russian friends would ask me “what Americans think about Russia”, I would shrug my shoulders and say something like “usually they don’t”.

But now, America, a superpower, and maybe we could say the superpower, is doing the same thing- blaming Russia for its own problems.  Maybe we could pause for a moment and look at ourselves, instead of Russia.  And maybe, just maybe, we can stop pointing fingers at Russians, Republicans, and Democrats.

Because although we are all sinners, if we make a little effort, we might just be able to begin working together again.