WASHINGTON — 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.