The Russian Embassy in Washington says it is “baffled” by and “disappointed” in how the U.S. government is responding to its effort to send diplomats to watch Americans vote at polling stations on Nov. 8, even suggesting the Obama administration is misleading the public.
The embassy statement, comes as tensions rise between Washington and Moscow over claims that Russia is trying to hack the 2016 campaign, possibly in favor of Republican nominee Donald Trump.
“Overall, we are disappointed with the reaction of the U.S. administration, and, on top of that, with the unfriendly way it is currently portraying our desire to pursue normal diplomatic work in respectful contact with the authorities of the host country, which we hoped for,” the embassy states. “It is obvious that in this case our American colleagues are lacking transparency for this kind of work.”
Kremlin-supported media reported on Thursday that Russian officials were upset that the State Department had denied their requests to have Russian diplomats “monitor” polling stations, and that several states, including Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, also had separately denied Russian officials permission.
The State Department rejected claims that it had barred the Russians, saying that letting in foreign election observers is up to individual states, not the federal government.
“Any suggestion that we rejected Russia’s proposal to observe our elections is false,” department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday, going on to call the Russian reports “nothing more than a PR stunt.”
In what appeared to be an attempt to clarify some of what the Russian media has been trumpeting, the embassy insisted Friday it had not sent a formal request to the State Department. However, it said Russian officials had informed the department that they hoped to send diplomats to polling stations to get “acquainted” with U.S. election procedures. Russian officials also sent letters to several “local electoral commissions” — presumably a reference to various states — indicating interest in watching the polls, the embassy said.
Such educational experiences are allowed under the Vienna Convention guidelines governing diplomatic relations, the embassy insisted. “By the way,” its statement adds, “we know that the U.S. diplomats in Russia are actively carrying out similar tasks all over the country.”
Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has taken an authoritarian turn and its elections have been marred by allegations of fraud by foreign observers and dissidents. The Kremlin has in turn cracked down on NGOs that receive foreign funding, while Putin has accused the U.S. of trying to undermine his presidency.
The embassy goes on to add that the State Department told Russia that if its officials wished to be election observers they could do so through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
That OSCE division often sends foreign delegations to observe U.S. elections. But, according to Kremlin-supported media outlet RT, a Russian official said the country did not wish to use that option because “participating in it would involve additional restrictions against visiting polling stations in some U.S. states.”
Beyond that, “contrary to the current statements of our U.S. colleagues, this note did not provide us with any alternatives on how to execute our normal functions,” the embassy states, again emphasizing that it considers watching the vote part of its permitted diplomatic activities.
Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana rejected the Russians’ request. Texas, for one, even warned of potential misdemeanor charges in its letter.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, those three states are among 12 that directly or indirectly bar foreign observers, including those coming through the OSCE. Louisiana, however, did not frame its rejection in those terms — its letter to Russian officials said state election workers were simply too busy to deal with the request because they were dealing with the fallout from recent flooding.
USA Today, however, reported that Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for Louisiana’s Secretary of State’s office, said Louisiana had “allowed observers from overseas in the past from other countries, never from Russia,” and that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security had “told us not to do this.”
The Russian Embassy seized on such information in its statement.
“From the media we discovered that some local authorities we approached coordinated their negative decision with the federal government,” it said. “That is quite the opposite to what’s being told by the administration on independence of a decision-making process in the states.”
Reporters at the State Department’s daily press briefing on Friday asked if U.S. officials had advised individual states not to allow in Russian observers. Department spokesman John Kirby said he was “not aware of any guidance that we gave to the states with respect to Russia specifically.”
Much of the diplomatic dust-up appears to revolve around terminology being used by both sides. For instance, the Russian media reports said the country’s diplomats wanted to “monitor” U.S. elections, which led State Department officials to bristle. The U.S. prefers the term “observer.”
The Russian Embassy, meanwhile, said its goal was “getting acquainted,” with the election process, “not observing.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest also discussed the topic on Friday, saying that with all of the concerns about Russia’s role in this year’s campaign, it was appropriate that U.S. officials may be suspicious of Moscow’s intentions.