The Trump White House is coming down harder than ever before on Russia, booting out 60 diplomats and standing firm with Western allies after an alleged Russian nerve gas attack on one of its former spies in Britain.
The fact that anyone is surprised shows how much President Donald Trump’s deferential relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has puzzled the world following allegations that Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US election helped put him in power.
But Monday’s announcement that the US will expel the largest number of Russian diplomats since the Cold War has been heralded as an unmistakable signal to the Kremlin that despite Trump’s lukewarm embrace of NATO, he will stand with America’s Western allies in a crisis.
“It’s a message that’s being embraced by our European allies because they’ve been worried that with some of the things they’ve heard or haven’t heard from this President about Russian President Vladimir Putin means he might be soft on Moscow,” said CNN military analyst John Kirby.
“But this tells them that the national security professionals they’ve been talking to behind closed doors really have held sway and the US policy is following what they have always promised, which is to crack down,” said Kirby, a former State Department spokesman.
Still, those who remain suspicious of Trump’s relationship with Moscow will have noticed that Trump himself did not personally announce or comment on the expulsions. And language from his spokesman Raj Shah appeared to show that the duality in administration policy on Russia remains.
While Shah said that the “brazen” attack on British soil forced the US to take action, he also issued repeated assurances that Trump “still wants to work with Russia.”
It is a message that will likely signal to Putin that the door for potential cooperation remains open and directly clashes with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s warning of “a new and dangerous phase in Russia’s hostile activity.”
Trump takes action
Despite Trump’s failure to comment, there is little doubt that the move is the toughest his administration has taken to date against Russia.
“I would love to hear (the President) talk about this expulsion himself. I think that would be powerful … but I don’t think we should get too fixated on it here,” Kirby said.
“This was pretty well coordinated decision not just inside the inner agency – but internationally as well,” he added.
British Ambassador to the US Kim Darroch praised the move on Twitter Monday saying: “Exceptional response from the US and international community to the Russian nerve agent attack on British soil. Grateful for US leadership, and for this extraordinary show of solidarity.”
Several US lawmakers from both sides of the aisle also expressed their support – noting that Trump’s decision sends both a strong signal to the Kremlin and emphasizes the US’ strong friendship with the UK.
Even some of Trump’s most vocal critics praised the purge of Russian diplomats by the administration – but also signaled they viewed it as a first step – demonstrating how the President’s doubters are still suspicious.
“While today’s decision sends an important signal to Moscow, the only way to ensure Putin and his cronies feel the consequences of their brazen actions is by punishing them financially,” Arizona Sen. John McCain, a frequent Russia critic said in a statement.
The most significant question going forward is whether Trump’s expulsion of the diplomats heralds a permanent stiffening of approach from Washington towards Moscow. The imminent arrival of CIA Chief Mike Pompeo as the next secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser will bring two strong anti-Russian voices to the top two foreign policy jobs, and could harden the White House’s resolve in this regard.
But Trump has demonstrated throughout his presidency that he is prepared to contradict the more hawkish feelings towards Russia of much of his national security team.
After talking to Putin on the phone last week about a potential presidential summit, Trump was torched by critics. The vitriol became even more intense when it emerged that Trump congratulated the Russian leader on his win in an election many outside observers believed was deeply flawed — even though he was counseled not to do so by his advisers.
If the administration has shifted tack on Russia and hardliners are gaining the upper hand in policy, it would be reasonable to expect follow-on actions from the diplomatic expulsions, perhaps in response to promised tit-for-tat measures by Russia.
While the numbers of those expelled was higher than had been expected, it is also the case that the mutual ejection of diplomats (most often spies working under official cover) has a ritual feel and a limited impact.
“It is a good thing but I can’t help but feel it is somewhat of a missed opportunity – we are using Cold War tactics to fight a new battlefield that Russia has established,” said Steve Hall, a CNN national security analyst who formerly directed CIA intelligence operations in Moscow.
Hall cited Russia’s attacks on Western democracies and cyber operations, as well as the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England, as being part of Moscow’s new generational assault on the West.
“I wish there were some other creative things that NATO, the United States and other countries would have decided to do against Vladimir Putin,” said Hall on CNN International.
Political cover or strategic shift?
Some analysts have called on the US, Britain and other Western nations to do more to curtail the financial might of oligarchs and Russian officials surrounding Putin as a way to exert a painful price on the Kremlin leader.
Shah pointed out Monday that the administration had targeted some officials close to the Kremlin strongman in response to Russian election meddling and wouldn’t preclude further such action.
Still, as they weighed the mass expulsions, US intelligence agency chiefs likely pointed out to the President that a like-for-like exodus of US and Russian diplomats from their posts could actually hurt America more than Russia.
That’s because of the overlap between Russian diplomats and the intelligence services, and the fact that Moscow tends to send more agents to its foreign embassies than is the case for CIA operatives in US posts overseas.
“The Russians almost always have the deck stacked in their favor because they always have a lot more intelligence officers than whatever the other country is,” said Hall.
But there is no doubt that the US decision to join a robust response by its NATO allies against Russia provides the President significant personal political cover. Especially when some critics have suggested that his failure to ever personally call out Putin indicates the Russians did indeed possess compromising material about him. Others have seen Trump’s solicitousness to Putin as providing proof of their belief that there was collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russians, an accusation the White House strenuously denies.
But now, whenever they are questioned about Trump’s odd attraction to Putin, the White House communications team can with justification cite some of the toughest punishments meted out to Moscow since the Cold War.
CNN’s Laura Koran and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report