Britain ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats believed involved in espionage-related activities, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Wednesday, in the first wave of measures against Moscow for a deadly chemical attack against a former double agent.
May, speaking to Parliament, also outlined a range of other steps, including a halt to high-level meetings with Russian officials and cancellation of a planned visit to Britain by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Unfortunately, the degree of support from the United States and other British allies remains vague at this point. (“May said more countermeasures were being considered. She said Britain sought support from the United States, the European Union and NATO, but she did not outline any requests she made from allies to join in the reprisals. Lawmakers in Parliament asked May pointedly what Britain’s allies were willing to do — and she mostly evaded the question, except to say that they had offered Britain support.”)
This will not do. “Kicking out 23 Russian ‘diplomats’ is a good start, but the U.K. should do more than just hit back at Russia diplomatically,” says former State Department official Max Bergmann. “The latest Russian attack should be met with actions that hit Russia and Putin where it hurts. This means targeting oligarchs; their bank accounts and their access to the U.K. To deter Russia, Theresa May needs to do more.” He argues that “the U.S. must also do more and stand in lock step with the U.K. The president should be loudly condemning Russia’s attack, something literally every other president would be doing right now. The administration should also immediately announce new sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs, as required by the Russia sanctions legislation it has thus far ignored.”
So far the president’s relative silence (he conceded that if May found Russia responsible, he’d agree) stands as one more disturbing sign of his infatuation with (or fear of) Putin. “The president’s decision — and it is a decision — to say and do virtually nothing about a murder committed by Russia on the soil of our closest ally is revealing,” says former State Department official and prominent Trump critic Eliot Cohen. He asks and answers the question surely on the mind of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as well as many ordinary Americans: “Is there a pattern of speech and inaction (to include failure to enforce mandatory sanctions on Moscow) that makes it look as though Trump is a Putin sympathizer? Absolutely.”
The fact that Putin would even authorize (as, certainly, he must have) such a blatant violation of British sovereignty and of international human rights is a disturbing sign of just how emboldened Russia has become with Trump in the White House. “During periods of American strength and unity with NATO allies, I doubt Putin would have approved such an attack,” says Clinton Watts, a former FBI special agent who early on detected the pattern of Russian social media manipulation in the 2016 race. “But the Trump administration has shown it will not respond to Putin’s aggression, and thus a nerve agent attack on a U.S. ally shows how Russia has risen as America declines internationally. Putin does not fear Trump, and based on the American non-response to election interference, he assumes we’ll do nothing.”
This is one of the first major challenges for Trump’s new pick for secretary of state, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo. He has been generally supportive of the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia is interfering in democratic elections and put its finger on the scale against Hillary Clinton in 2016. However, at the CIA, he’s not been able to move Trump to action to defend American electoral sovereignty or to hold Russia to account for its interference. “Actions speak louder than words. The administration’s slow-roll response to Russia sanctions passed by Congress last year — plus its passive appeasement of Russia and Iran in Syria — send the message to Putin that he can continue to undercut global order,” says Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress. He adds, ” This apparent attack in Britain is a major test. A weak response could be an invitation for more of these attacks — and Trump would pay a serious cost if a similar attack were perpetrated against America.”
It’s long past time that Republicans in Congress increased pressure on Trump to end his weirdly deferential treatment of Putin. Appearing on CNBC, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that “we all need to be pushing back against the incredibly nefarious activity that Russia is displaying right now.” Asked about what the United States should be doing, Corker referenced the already passed sanctions. “We have put in place very, very strong sanctions,” he said. “There’s going to be additional sanctions coming forth relative to oligarchs that are playing inappropriate roles.” That would be helpful, depending on what Corker has in mind. But as he said, Trump “hasn’t used the rhetoric people would like for him to use and I would like to see him step a little bit more forward.”
Trump’s failure to act on the sanctions passed by Congress sends a terrible message to Russia. Alina Polyakova, a Russia specialist at the Brookings Institution, tells me that Trump needs to “seize this opportunity to support the U.K. and implement the overdue … mandated sanctions against Russia.”
With Trump AWOL, Congress should do the following: hold oversight hearings. Do not allow Pompeo to be confirmed without an explanation of the president’s reluctance to defend this country and a commitment to respond more aggressively, both by action and by words, to Russian aggression. Trump is giving Putin a free pass, and it’s time to find out why — and then put an end to it.