WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to aid special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of the 2016 U.S. election came with a caveat sure to prevent any real agreement: Russian agents would be granted access to interview Americans on U.S. soil, as well as a key Putin critic.
In a news conference Monday in Helsinki alongside President Donald Trump, Putin was asked whether he’d be willing to extradite 12 Russians indicted in the U.S. last week for hacking Democrats during the 2016 election and then releasing stolen emails to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Minutes earlier, Trump said Putin had an “interesting idea” on the subject.
Putin seized the opportunity, suggesting that Mueller’s team travel to Russia for interviews with “alleged” intelligence officers indicted by the special counsel. “Official representatives of the United States, including the members of this very commission headed by Mr. Mueller — we can let them into the country and they will be present at this questioning.”
But, he quickly added, there is “another condition” to doing so. That would be letting Russian investigators “question officials, including the officers of law enforcement and intelligence service of the United States, whom we believe are — who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.”
Experts in U.S.-Russian relations say the measure was a ploy. And there’s a history of Russia not responding to requests from Mueller, who has indicted a total of 25 Russians since his probe began about one year ago. Mueller’s office had no comment on Putin’s offer.
“It’s absolutely classic Russian diplomacy,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. “The condition is going to be something that appears on its surface to be reciprocal but in actual fact is politically — and in every other way — inconceivable in the actual context.”
Putin singled out dissident Bill Browder, the founder of Hermitage Capital Management who has led a campaign to persuade countries to adopt sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights abuses, as someone he’d like to see questioned. In fact, though, Browder gave up his U.S. citizenship in 1998 and lives in London.
Browder, who has been a top target for Moscow, led a campaign that prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act in 2012, imposing travel bans and sanctions on Russian officials seen as involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, Browder’s attorney, in a Russian prison in 2009. Putin retaliated by signing a law that banned Americans from adopting children in Russia, as well as drawing up a list of U.S. officials barred from the country.
Russia has offered some limited cooperation with Western nations in the past, though the country’s constitution bars extradition of its citizens. Putin made a similar offer of cooperation before with London’s Scotland Yard. In the 2006 poisoning of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko on British soil, detectives from the U.K. came to Moscow for interviews but were limited to passing along questions and listening to Russian counterparts interviewing suspects. They weren’t allowed to directly interview them.
Despite Putin’s public show of wanting to aid Mueller, the special counsel has already asked Moscow for assistance in his case against one Russian entity — the Internet Research Agency — but hasn’t received a response, according to court filings. The company is fighting Mueller in U.S. court.
“The government has submitted service requests to the Russian government pursuant to a mutual legal assistance treaty,” according to a filing by Mueller on July 6. “To the government’s knowledge, no further steps have been taken within Russia to effectuate service.”
A federal court in Washington issued a summons in February for indicted Russians to appear for trial. Mueller’s team delivered copies of those summonses to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia in order to be delivered to the defendants, according to a filing in May.
“That office, however, declined to accept the summonses,” according to the filing.