On Sunday, Vladimir Putin announced that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia would have to shed 755 members. Most of those, admittedly, will be local support staff; of roughly 1,200 people employed by the U.S. government in Russia, 333 are U.S. citizens and 867 are foreign nationals, most likely Russians. So this isn’t quite the mass expulsion of U.S. diplomats that was portrayed in initial news reports. It’s “merely” a mass layoff of Russian workers who will now suffer because of the whims of their president. But it’s still a substantial slap at the United States — far more serious than President Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Kremlin meddling in the U.S. election.
Putin’s action is a sign that he has given up hope that the Trump administration will lift sanctions on Russians and otherwise conciliate the Kremlin, as Michael Flynn, who would later be named and then deposed as national security advisor, apparently hinted to the Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak before the inauguration. U.S.-Russia relations, far from improving as Trump had promised, are in the depths of an icy freeze that is reviving talk of a new Cold War.
So far, Trump hasn’t conceded that dismal reality. His silence suggests he remains wedded to the fantasy that Putin is an admirable leader and a potential American ally in Syria and beyond, and his long-standing affection for the Russian dictator seems to have only grown stronger after the two men spent hours bonding with one another in Hamburg.
Just imagine if Rosie O’Donnell, “Crooked Hillary,” the “failing New York Times” or one of the president’s other supposed enemies had insulted him, however slightly. He would surely have gone ballistic on Twitter by now. But there is not a word about Russia or Putin in Trump’s Twitter feed, nor in his public comments, save for his ritualistic (and increasingly unconvincing) denials of any collusion between his campaign and Russia in the election.
The only official U.S. response to Putin’s act was a perfunctory State Department statement saying the expulsion was “regrettable and uncalled for.” Vice President Mike Pence is talking tough on Russia while in Estonia, but Trump continues his streak of never speaking ill of Putin, a streak all the more remarkable given how many other people Trump routinely disparages. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a recipient of the Order of Friendship from Putin, also has been thunderously silent about this unwarranted affront to the department he leads.
Trump, to be sure, has agreed to sign a bill imposing further sanctions on Russia but only because he had no choice — it passed both houses by veto-proof margins. The legislation removes presidential discretion to lift sanctions, an extraordinary repudiation that indicates how worried lawmakers of both parties are about this president’s fondness for Russia’s dictator. Trump dragged his feet as much as possible and tried to water down the legislation, but contrary to White House claims, he did not manage to substantially alter the bill. Putin went ahead with his retaliation once the Senate and the House rejected administration entreaties to go easy on Russia.
Now the question is whether the administration will do anything at all to respond to Putin’s enforced downsizing of the U.S. mission in Russia. If Trump were so inclined, there is much he could do, from slowing down the issuance of visas to Russians who want to visit the U.S., to freezing the bank accounts of Putin and his oligarch friends (it would be poetic justice to freeze 755 accounts), to adopting a Pentagon proposal to ship anti-tank missiles and other potent weaponry to the Ukrainian armed forces resisting Russian aggression.
Will Trump do any of this? Doubtful. The only anti-Russian measures he has taken are those that have been forced on him by Congress. The administration isn’t hesitating to impose personal sanctions on the dictator of Venezuela, just the dictator of Russia.
Trump’s fondness for Putin is the big mystery of global politics. Perhaps Trump simply admires the Russian strongman, or perhaps the Steele Dossier, compiled by a former British intelligence officer, is accurate and Putin has something on Trump. Whatever the case, Trump’s unwillingness to get tough with Russia saps his credibility, strengthens suspicions of collusion with the Kremlin, worries our Eastern European allies and undermines America’s standing in the world. That is a high price to pay for trying to remain in the good graces of an anti-American dictator.