Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to curtail American staff at diplomatic posts by more than 750 people could herald a frosty turn in Moscow’s relations with the United States.
It is the harshest such diplomatic action since the waning days of the Cold War and almost certain to ratchet up tensions between two governments that were already struggling to find common ground.
President Trump has long talked of wanting to work with Russia, and Putin’s government appeared receptive. But since Trump’s inauguration, the controversy over Moscow’s meddling in the election has only grown, creating a significant barrier to closer ties.
Putin indicated that he is done waiting for relations with the U.S. to improve. He called the diplomatic measures “biting” when announcing them on Sunday, a shift in tone since two chummy encounters with Trump on the sidelines of the G-20.
The tensions between the U.S. and Russia are flaring over a familiar subject: economic sanctions.
Congress last week approved sanctions legislation related to Russia’s election meddling, and Trump has indicated he will sign it.
The president’s acceptance of the sanctions is likely being seen in Russia as evidence that he is limited in his ability to improve relations, experts say. One of the features of the bill is that it curtails Trump’s authority to lift sanctions on Russia without congressional approval.
“The Russians are disappointed. They had hoped for some kind of a reset under President Trump and they haven’t seen that,” said Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former ambassador to Ukraine.
“They held off for a while to give him some time but my guess is the decision to do this is a result of a conclusion in Moscow that there is going to be no early change in the U.S. approach to Russia.”
Trump has so far been silent on Russia’s action. The State Department called the measures “a regrettable and uncalled-for act,” but said only that it is assessing its impact and is still determining a response.
Putin did leave himself some wiggle room in his Sunday announcement, and his spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, on Monday insisted that that “Of course we’re not interested in those relations being subject to erosion.”
Even in making his announcement, Putin pointed out other areas where the U.S. and Russia could continue to seek cooperation, like de-escalating the violence in Syria.
He did not mention the president by name. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, blamed the sanctions on “Russophobic forces that are pushing Washington toward confrontation” — not the administration or U.S. government as a whole.
Still, experts cautioned that while Putin might be trying to leave the door open for Trump to mend ties, the move is ultimately a response to U.S. policy as a whole.
“I wouldn’t minimize it in that way,” said Christopher Swift, a former official with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. “It’s true to say it’s ultimately a message to Congress, but if Trump was in a position to change congressional opinion on this, he wouldn’t have veto-proof majorities in terms of the sanctions bill.”
“It’s almost like this administration has two different personalities,” he added, pointing to the tougher line on Russia also taken by Vice President Pence and other senior government officials. “This duality in U.S. foreign policy is great fodder for reporters and analysts, but at the end of the day it creates a level of paralysis that benefits the Putin regime.”
It’s unclear how much the diplomatic tit-for-tat will impact day-to-day operations —or even how many U.S. personnel will be expelled.
Peskov said it was up to the U.S. to decide how to get its staff down to 455, matching the number of Russian diplomatic staff in the United States.
The State Department has declined to comment on the exact number of Americans working at the Moscow embassy and three U.S. consulates in Russia, but it appears to be far less than 755. It is believed to be about 350, with the rest of around 1,000 being Russian support staff — translators and administrative services personnel, for example.
The most recent publicly available data, a 2013 State Department inspector general’s report, listed the number of “locally employed” staff members at the embassy and three consulates at 934 out of 1,279 total staff members.
“Mr. Putin is throwing a lot of Russian citizens out of work,” Pifer said.
The move might be geared at limiting the U.S.’s ability to operate on Russian soil, experts say, but it has a lot less teeth than the sanctions levied by Congress.
Russia lacks the means to strike back in a way that would have a similar impact on the U.S. economy, Pifer said — by choking off significant revenue streams in the finance or energy sectors, for example.
“It shows the Russians didn’t have what would have been a more appropriate response,” he said. “They did this because they didn’t have a lot of other options.”
But the measures are by far the harshest diplomatic retaliation since 1986, in the final days of the Soviet Union, when Moscow forced 261 local staff members to quit.
President Obama in December expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. in retaliation for 2016 election hacking, giving the 72 hours to leave the country. He also seized two diplomatic compounds that the U.S. said had been used for espionage as well as retreats.
It’s possible that the U.S. could escalate tensions by announcing additional expulsions in response to the Sunday announcement — a move that would likely push Russia to match the expulsions one-for-one.
“At this point in time, I’m just not sure,” Pifer said. “President Trump is the wild card. I don’t know how he responds to this.”