The unprecedented series of regular expulsions of Russian diplomats that began earlier this week will have very serious repercussions for the US-Russian relationship. Russia’s response will involve more than just evicting even more Americans on a reciprocal basis in order to achieve diplomatic parity. There is a far more serious issue at stake, and that has to do with the personal sense of trust between the leaders of the two states.
Donald Trump’s decision to join the flash mob of expulsions of Russian diplomats that was set in motion by London was announced on March 26, 2018. At this point, 17 EU countries have already announced their intention to take part in this campaign. Thus they want to express their solidarity with Great Britain — which has become a “victim of Russian aggression” due to the poisoning of the former MI6 agent Sergei Skripal.
Nevertheless, Trump’s stance on the matter was not clear. On one hand, he signed a joint statement condemning Russia along with May, Merkel, and Macron on March 15. But on the other, he never even mentioned the Skripal incident during his March 20 telephone call to Vladimir Putin.
Forty-eight diplomats from the Russian embassy and 12 staffers from the Russian UN mission in New York were ordered to leave US soil within the week. The Russian consulate general in Seattle has been closed. This will certainly be followed by a Russian response that will hit back even harder, as Vladimir Putin warned back in the fall.
Don’t forget that this wave of expulsions began in December 2016, when outgoing US President Obama decided to send 35 Russian diplomats packing in return for Russia’s alleged interference in the US election. In a break with tradition, Vladimir Putin did not respond by kicking out any Americans. At the time he publicly announced that he wanted to forge a new relationship with the new administration. And it was clear that Obama’s actions were an obvious attempt to complicate Trump’s dialog with Moscow. Realizing this, Putin did not rise to the bait, because the Kremlin was hopeful that Trump was planning to patch up the relationship with Russia.
However, after Trump’s inauguration the US media launched a massive campaign accusing him of having secret ties to Moscow.
After the first meeting between Trump and Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, the US Congress passed a law in July 2017 that beefed up the sanctions against Russia. Moscow reacted very quickly, making a dramatic decision to cut the number of US staff at American diplomatic missions in Russia down to 455, which corresponded to the number of their counterparts at the Russian diplomatic missions in the US.
So what do we have now? It wasn’t the work of the two countries’ diplomats or even US-Russian relations as a whole that took the biggest hit from Washington’s recent decision. The main fallout from Trump’s move might be seen in Vladimir Putin’s new disappointment in him.
Of course this doesn’t mean that Putin was ever particularly smitten with Trump. For the last two and a half years the Russian president has been aware of Trump’s sincere desire to open up a dialog. That didn’t entail offering any concessions or becoming “Russia’s friend,” but simply the initiation of a serious conversation on the key issues of the current world order. Trump’s wishes were evident not only from his words, but also from his unmistakable reluctance to join in the policy of pressuring Russia as it is practiced by the elite across the Atlantic.
Trump’s approach was prompted only in part by the attempts that had been made to use the Russia card to discredit him personally. It is not lost on anyone that it will be impossible for him to achieve the goals he has set — and Trump has his eye on redefining the role and place of the US in the world — if he is involved in a confrontation with Russia.
That’s why Putin was not just patient as he waited for Trump to free himself from the pressure of the Washington establishment — he was also understanding about the concessions Trump had to make toward Congress. It was essential for Trump to get the investigation looking for “Russian fingerprints” wrapped up quickly, so the American press would drop the subjects of his “Russian connections” and “illegitimate win” from their headlines.
And at that moment the “Skripal case” reared its head. You can’t miss the blatant provocation of it. In addition to its purely British goals, that incident was intended to fan the flames of a heated confrontation between Russia and the West. Trump initially took a cautious position. Although offering to stand in solidarity with Theresa May, he nonetheless spoke of the need for proof of Russian fingerprints on the “Skripal case.” Then he and the leaders of four Western countries signed a general statement. However, he did not make a complaint about the incident when he spoke with Putin personally.
Moreover, during their telephone conversation, the two presidents agreed to begin preparations for a face-to-face meeting, in other words, their first full-scale Russian-American summit. It seemed that Trump had managed to overcome almost all of the biggest obstacles to getting to that summit, both domestically as well as those posed by his partners across the Atlantic. However, once tensions over the “Skripal case” began to escalate even further, the real basis for the American-Russian dialog — the personal relations of the two heads of state — was suddenly called into question.
To be sure, the Russian president has always treated his colleague with respect. He saw him as a responsible politician and a man of principle who has defended his views and stuck to his guns. As someone who knows how to take a punch, someone you can do business with.
However, the agreement to expel the Russian diplomats is damaging Trump’s reputation in the eyes of the Russian president — and this is an issue of fundamental importance. Yes, Vladimir Putin understands that his American colleague had for all intents and purposes been driven into a corner. If Trump did not agree to give them the boot, then for the next few weeks he would be subjected to a mass flogging, not just because he “again revealed his dependence on the Russians,” but also for the “blow to Atlantic solidarity, to the US allies, and to America’s interests” that he had allegedly inflicted. But if Trump’s hands are still tied 14 months after taking office, it is very difficult to assume that he will manage to free them during the time he has left in his term.
It’s almost impossible to forge a long-term relationship with someone who is bound hand and foot. For that you need a partner whose actions are predictable and who is capable of making strategic decisions and seeing them through.