WASHINGTON — Russian officials in August held up the evacuation from Moscow of a sick American military attaché to a hospital in Germany in the latest episode of a long-running campaign of harassment against American diplomats in Russia.
Diplomatic protocols allow for the fast evacuation of diplomats facing medical emergencies. But the departure of the plane sent to evacuate the attaché was delayed for hours for no apparent reason despite protests from embassy officials and the State Department in Washington, according to several Trump administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic issue that some other officials prefer to play down.
The Russians eventually relented, and the American, a uniformed officer, was safely evacuated, the officials said.
While State and Defense Department officials confirmed there was a medical incident in Russia, they declined to identify the officer and would not provide any details of the case or why he was being evacuated.
“There was a Department of Defense official from the US Embassy in Russia that had to be medevacked from the US Embassy out of Russia,” said Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Military attaché offices operate openly in most US Embassies and are managed by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm. A webpage for the office in Moscow says it “serves as the primary point of contact for all joint U.S.-Russia military activities and communications on defense matters.”
The State Department’s undersecretary of state for management, Brian Bulatao, raised the episode with Russian officials in early September during a meeting in Vienna convened to discuss what one of the Trump administration officials called “bilateral irritants,” including the harassment of Americans. But it is not clear how the Russian officials responded.
Former US officials with experience in Russia said they could not recall a similar incident happening before and viewed the episode as potentially representing an escalation by Moscow. But they said it would also be consistent with years of intimidation tactics against American diplomats in the Russian capital.
“If we were bringing in a plane, that means this was really serious. That does not happen very often,” said Michael A. McFaul, who served as the US ambassador to Moscow during the Obama administration.
“When I was ambassador, we felt like we were under siege all the time,” McFaul said. He said that delaying a medical flight would fit “the kind of classic harassment that for many years now our people have been putting up with. It’s inexcusable, it’s horrible.”
Russia’s internal security service, which Vladimir Putin once directed, “wants foreign officials and their families to feel like they’re on enemy soil inside Russia,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief who spent five years in Moscow. “They want officials and their families to be under duress” and unable to focus on their jobs.
“The idea that they would interfere with medical care or put someone’s life or well-being at risk is taking the harassment for which Russia has been known since the days of the KGB to a new and dangerous level,” Hoffman added.
Adding to the diplomatic strain is the Russian detention since December of Paul N. Whelan, a former US Marine whom the Russians arrested in Moscow and charged with spying. Whelan, who denies the charges, faces up to 20 years in prison.
And in mid-October, Russian authorities removed three American diplomats from a train headed to an Arctic town near the site of a recent nuclear accident. The State Department said they “were on official travel and had properly notified Russian authorities of their travel.”
It is also a sensitive moment for the US Embassy in Moscow. The American ambassador to Russia, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., left his post last month, and President Trump has nominated John Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state, to succeed him.
In a statement, Russia’s Foreign Ministry played down the delay of the attaché’s departure. It said the ailing US military officer had passed “right through” border control while still in an ambulance, and that a “slight delay” of about 20 minutes occurred during boarding because the diplomat’s “foreign doctors” were mistakenly declared as crew members and required boarding passes, which took time to process.
“We also inform you that the illness of the American diplomat was not serious. He recovered a long time ago and returned to his place of work in Moscow,” the statement added.
But an American official said the Russians insisted that the ailing employee undergo “needless” security screening, which required separating him from his doctors and medical equipment.
“It was eventually smoothed over through diplomatic channels,” said the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address delicate diplomatic interactions.
The official said the officer returned to Moscow and his duties at the embassy soon after “a medical appointment” in Germany. The official said the officer’s condition was not urgent, but could not immediately explain why he needed a medevac aircraft rather than a commercial flight.
Despite Trump’s outreach to Putin, relations between Washington and Moscow remain generally hostile, and Russian intimidation of American officials in their country has reached levels unseen since the Cold War, current and former American officials say.
And while Trump continues to speak in forgiving tones about Putin — and even suggesting that Russia might rejoin the Group of 7 — many senior Trump administration officials are furious over the Russian harassment campaign.