It was the strongest sign yet of American solidarity with Britain — and its allies in Europe — in the face of apparent Russian misdeeds. Under President Trump, that's noteworthy. Over the past year, Trump's apparent personal softness toward Moscow and indifference toward NATO and the European Union led many in Europe to question his commitment to the transatlantic relationship. Just last week, he congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection without mentioning Moscow's apparent use of a military-grade chemical weapon on British soil.
But Monday's move marked a profound shift in tone. “Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America’s national security,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences.”
“To the Russian government, we say when you attack our friend you will face serious consequences,” said a senior Trump administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to brief my colleagues. “As we have continually stressed to Moscow, the door to dialogue is open,” the official added, but Russia must “cease its recklessly aggressive behavior.”
The common front against Russia is welcome news among Washington's divided European friends. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow who has criticized Trump's approach toward Russia in the past, supported the decision and suggested it could prove a genuine blow to Russia's intelligence-gathering operations.
Others argued that the expulsions would ultimately be little more than window-dressing. “Great you rearranged the careers of a bunch of diplomats and maybe even spies, but Putin and his guys aren’t going to care unless you f--- with their money in London, New York and Barcelona,” a senior E.U. law enforcement official told BuzzFeed News. McFaul agreed that a more effective response would involve further sanctions on Russians with investments and interests in the West.
“These expulsions and closure of the consulate reinforce the reality of a relationship that continues on a downward spiral,” Angela Stent, a former intelligence officer who focused on Russia in the George W. Bush administration, said to my colleagues. “The Kremlin will surely retaliate, leaving even fewer areas where the United States and Russia can work together. What a change from the president’s congratulatory call to Vladimir Putin last week.”
Indeed, Russian officials wasted no time firing back. They branded the measures “obsequiousness” toward Britain, lamented the “escalation” of tensions by the West and denied once more their role in the poisoning incident. A spokesman for Putin made clear that the Kremlin would probably respond with reciprocal expulsions. Russia's state-backed media, meanwhile, circulated alternate theories pinning the attack on the United States.
Putin, who derives much of his legitimacy from his ability to rival the West, is only too happy to play this game. A resurgence of Cold War tit-for-tat expulsions and the thickening atmosphere of distrust between Russia and the West boosts his image in the mind of Russian nationalists. It “helps to reconfirm a narrative that Putin has been pushing since 2012 about the U.S. as a hostile actor,” McFaul told Today's WorldView.
That's necessary given the actual weaknesses of the Russian state. The country's economy is smaller than that of Canada. Its entire military budget, noted Time's Ian Bremmer, is smaller than the extra amount Trump wants Congress to add to U.S. defense spending. And although Putin won an election he was never going to lose, his hold on power is not as strong as it may seem.
Putin “knows that, no matter how many votes he ends up with, vast numbers of Russians are dissatisfied with their lot,” Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, wrote in a recent column for The Washington Post. “Nine of 10 consider corruption a big problem; just as many feel they are unable to do anything about it; and a shrinking number believe he will address it seriously. For a leader thought to have profited from foreign adventures, Putin’s support for specific policies has also started to look shaky. Polls show an astonishing 49 percent of Russians want out of Syria.”
And so, on a certain level, the current round of expulsions works to Putin's advantage. This month, the Russian president's campaign spokesman even thanked Britain for helping the Kremlin meet its voter-turnout target of 70 percent. “We were pressured exactly at the moment when we needed to mobilize,” said Andrey Kondrashov, adding that, in a moment of confrontation with a foreign adversary, “the Russian people unite around the center of power. And the center of power is certainly Putin.”
“The expulsion of diplomats strengthens the bond between Putin and his constituency, because it enhances the besieged fortress complex,” Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin tweeted. “A move against mafia state assets would, on the other hand, damage this bond, because Russians have no sympathy for London-based kleptocrats.”
Such a move may come; European officials and the Trump administration are plotting next steps. No matter what, though, signs point to further troubles ahead.
“The differences between us are vast and hinge on principles of European security,” Vygaudas Usackas, the outgoing E.U. ambassador in Moscow, wrote in a letter published in Britain's Observer last November. He warned that things would not improve once Putin won a fresh mandate for power: “Over the course of a six-year presidential term that will follow, it seems probable that the current clash of world views between Moscow and the West will continue.”
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