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Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., Is a Scene of Protests and Spy Games

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On a warm June night, Benjamin Wittes was seated at a card table across the street from the Russian Embassy in Washington, kicking off his light show.

Assembled around him was a sprawl of wires and equipment, including a laptop and two powerful light projectors. One of them was beaming a giant blue and yellow Ukrainian flag onto the embassy’s white facade.

That was just the beginning. “We’ve got a little essay we’re going to project, line by line, in three languages,” said Mr. Wittes, a prominent national security law expert. “It’s about stolen children.” By the end of the night, he was beaming a Ukrainian-language profanity about President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia onto the towering embassy structure.

Mr. Wittes and his friends have been lighting up the embassy once every few weeks since the war in Ukraine began last year. It is clearly getting under the Russians’ skin. On this night, the Russians were trying to blot out his projections with ones of their own, including two giant white Z’s — a nationalist Russian symbol of the war effort.

Once, last spring, a Russian spotlight chased a Ukrainian flag across the embassy facade in a slapstick cat-and-mouse game that has since been watched millions of times online. In April, a burly man in jeans and a Baltimore Orioles T-shirt emerged from the embassy and silently obstructed Mr. Wittes’s projectors with an open umbrella in each hand.

“They get into spotlight wars with us,” Mr. Wittes said. “It’s really quite juvenile.”

It is also the strange new normal around Russia’s main diplomatic outpost in the United States, a scene of near-constant protests, spy games and general weirdness as the most hostile relations in decades between the United States and Russia play out in the heart of Washington. Thousands of miles from the front in Ukraine, the embassy compound has become a battle zone of its own.

The Russian ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, has called it “a besieged fortress.” Within its high fences ringed by security cameras, the compound is a self-contained village, complete with an apartment complex for diplomats and their families, along with a school, a playground and a swimming pool. On a recent afternoon, a young girl could be seen skateboarding near a vegetable garden.

In recent years, as many as 1,200 Russian personnel worked in the embassy compound. The State Department will not say how many remain — staffing levels here and at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow are now a sensitive topic — but in January 2022, Mr. Antonov put the number at 184 diplomats and support staff members.

And while the embassy personnel may be among Washington’s least welcome residents, Biden administration officials are glad they are here. It is essential to maintain diplomatic ties even in the worst of times, they say. Kicking out the Russians entirely would also mean an end to America’s diplomatic presence in Moscow, which, among other things, works to assist U.S. citizens imprisoned in Russia.

Mr. Antonov has moved out of his official residence in a historic townhouse near the White House and now lives at the embassy, according to people who speak with him. He is a veteran diplomat who spent years negotiating arms control agreements with American counterparts in Geneva. But he also served as deputy minister of defense when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has been hit with sanctions by the European Union.

He complains often about his limited contacts with Biden administration officials and members of Congress — Politico once branded him “Lonely Anatoly” — as well as the protests and “hooliganism” outside his embassy gates.

Protests are routine, with anti-Putin chants and broadcasts of Ukraine’s national anthem drawing supportive honks from passing cars. Homes across the street are festooned with Ukrainian flags and anti-Russian slogans. Neighbors shout “Slava Ukraini!” (long live Ukraine) at Russians who come and go.

Bob Stowers, a local resident, said he stops at each of six security cameras on his daily walk past the embassy and holds up a news article about the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “It makes me feel a little bit better,” he said.

Sometimes things get more serious: Area residents complain that Wisconsin Avenue, the main artery that runs past the embassy, is occasionally closed down by the Secret Service police investigating bomb scares — as many as 10 since the invasion, by one neighbor’s estimate, although some believe the Russians exaggerate threats to shut down protesters. (A bomb squad was once called to examine a papier-mâché washing machine that had been left in the embassy’s driveway; it turned out to be a harmless symbol of consumer goods looted by Russian troops.)

An unofficial street sign near the end of the embassy’s driveway proclaims it “Zelensky Way.” Protesters, including Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington, have planted sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine, in the grass along the sidewalk. Neighbors say the flowers have been torn up overnight.

What seems to make Mr. Antonov angriest, however, are the F.B.I.’s efforts to recruit spies in his midst.

“Basically, our embassy is operating in a hostile environment,” Mr. Antonov told the Russian news service Tass last year. “Agents from U.S. security services are hanging around outside the Russian Embassy, handing out C.I.A. and F.B.I. phone numbers, which can be called to establish contact.” (After initially saying that Mr. Antonov might be available for an interview, the embassy stopped responding to queries for this article.)

While it is unclear whether any business cards have actually been proffered, the F.B.I. does not try to hide its efforts to recruit Russians from behind the embassy gates. The bureau publicly released a video this year encouraging Russian diplomats who might oppose the war to be in touch. The video opens with an image of the Russian Embassy before showing a ride on buses and subway trains through the city to the doors of F.B.I. headquarters.

“You can walk into any F.B.I. field office and say you want to change the future,” the video assures potential spies.

The F.B.I. would not comment on Mr. Antonov’s claims about agents handing out business cards, but a spokesperson said the bureau “seeks information from members of any community of interest in an effort to counter threats to our national security.”

Nor would the bureau answer questions about the mysterious home across the street from the embassy compound. The occupants are rarely seen, and the shades are always drawn, even though the lights are usually on at night. Many neighbors assume the house is staffed by F.B.I. agents surveilling the Russians, a theory not exactly discouraged by the fact that a street-level Google Maps image of the house has been blurred out.

The Russians have some cause for paranoia. Soon after they began construction on the embassy in 1977, the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency started digging a secret tunnel underneath the complex in an effort to tap into its communications. But the project had to be abandoned after its exposure by Robert Hanssen, an F.B.I. agent arrested in 2001 for selling U.S. secrets to Moscow. (Mr. Hanssen died in June.)

Douglas London, a Russian-speaking former C.I.A. operative and the author of a recent book on spy recruitment, said it would be difficult but not impossible to find Russians at the embassy willing to cooperate with the United States.

“If you’re a Russian official assigned to the U.S., they’ve put you through additional vetting,” Mr. London said. “Nevertheless, some of our best assets over the years have been Russian officials in the U.S. who have volunteered to help us. I think Putin’s got to worry about his Russians here.”

Mr. Antonov even claims that he has been personally recruited. Last June, he told Russian state television that he had received a letter from the State Department urging him to “denounce my motherland and condemn the Russian president’s actions,” according to Tass.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the alleged letter.

People who know Mr. Antonov call him an unlikely dissident. He is not a fanatical ideologue, they say, but he is also unfailingly loyal to the Kremlin. Some Westerners who have dealt with him describe him as cordial and even likable. But he is also capable of delivering caustic monologues; days before his country invaded Ukraine, Mr. Antonov insisted there would be no war.

Despite the toxic political cloud that surrounds him in many quarters, Mr. Antonov tries to maintain some normal diplomatic habits. He hosts fellow diplomats at his residence, greeting them with caviar, fine wine, vodka and what guests describe as exquisite food, although he grouses over the loss of his beloved chef, thanks to three-year U.S. visa limits for Russians.

He hosts social functions, including a holiday reception in December for the news media, attended mostly by non-American journalists, according to people who were there. Attendees were given a thick magazine recounting Russia’s heroic stand against the Nazis at Stalingrad.

At his residence in May, Mr. Antonov hosted a “Russia-Africa Unity Night,” underscoring the Kremlin’s ties with many nations on the continent. Sleek sedans lined up outside, with diplomatic plates indicating attendees from Egypt, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea and Morocco, among other nations.

(A New York Times reporter who asked to attend the event was granted a formal invitation by email — then received a follow-up message calling the invitation “no longer valid,” without further explanation.)

Mr. Antonov may complain about life in Washington, but things are much worse for Americans in Moscow, U.S. officials say.

Protests are common outside the U.S. Embassy there, though officials believe that, unlike in Washington, they are organized by the host government. U.S. diplomats are constantly followed through the city by Russian security agents and sometimes intimidated. On the day in January that the recently confirmed U.S. ambassador, Lynne M. Tracy, first arrived at her office, the power mysteriously went out.

One former senior U.S. official recalled a recent incident in which someone taped a giant letter Z to the car roof of an American diplomat who was inside a grocery shop. State television later aired drone footage of the car pulling into the U.S. Embassy, the former official said.

Last June, the City of Moscow renamed the parcel of land around the U.S. Embassy, giving it a new address: 1 Donetsk People’s Republic Square. (The name refers to the unrecognized Russian-installed government of an occupied eastern Ukrainian province.)

The Russians have their projectors, too, and have beamed images of carnage from U.S. wars in Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan against a building across from the American Embassy.

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, none of this seems likely to abate soon. Mr. Wittes, for one, is deeply invested. “It’s taken a lot of energy, and a lot of money, and a lot of experimentation” to perfect his light shows, he says. Plus, he said, “it makes Ukrainians happy.”

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