Russia’s diplomatic reprisals put relations with US in deep freeze

Though not ideologically or militarily hostile toward the US in the same way as during the cold war, Moscow appears to have given up on any Trump detente and is digging in for extended tensions with Washington.

Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters
Cars drive past the U.S. embassy building in Moscow, Russia, July 28, 2017.

Russian TV is running film of US diplomatic vehicles being turned away today from a suburban dacha complex that, until recently, served as the main weekend retreat for embassy staffers in Moscow to walk their dogs, have a barbecue, or just enjoy the outdoors. Sixty percent of US diplomatic staff in Russia will have to be cut within a month, and two key embassy facilities were seized today, amid a round of political body blows that looks almost unprecedented in the troubled history of these two countries.

What is most remarkable about the Russian TV coverage is the meanness of the tone. Behind it lies the clear suggestion that a just retribution is being meted out for the humiliation Russia suffered last December when 35 Russian diplomats were ordered to leave the US within 72 hours, and two Russian recreational compounds were confiscated as punishment for the Kremlin's alleged interference in US elections.

But the cycle of perceived offenses has clearly reached a tipping point, after a new US sanctions bill against Moscow was overwhelmingly passed by Congress last week and Russia belatedly reacted to the December expulsions with sweeping measures that will effectively hobble US diplomatic operations in Russia.

It may not spell a literal return to the old cold war, experts say, but that era's angry, irreconcilable, good-versus-evil spirit appears to be roaring back with a vengeance.

“We're into a situation where, for the indefinite future, there will be no ways to change the situation for the better, and plenty of ways to make it worse,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “We're not living anymore in the bipolar world that was dominated by US-Soviet rivalry and Russia, frankly, doesn't matter nearly as much to the global system as the USSR did. But it's pretty clear that no steps are going to be taken to improve things now, and the best we can hope for is rational management of our differences.”

A ‘grim’ mood

Russian diplomatic retaliation has been expected for some time. Kremlin hopes that the December expulsions of Russians might be reversed by the incoming Trump administration have evaporated amid the downward spiral of US-Russia relations that have marked the past few months. But few thought it would take the draconian form that Vladimir Putin announced in an interview Sunday, requiring the US to scale back its total diplomatic personnel in Russia to 455, the same level Moscow claims to maintain in the US.

The US had more than 1,200 employees in Russia in 2013, and experts say that picture hasn't changed much. That means the US will have to remove nearly 800 people working at its Moscow embassy and three consulates by Sept. 1, forcing a drastic curtailment of all but core diplomatic functions.

Those to be laid off will be mostly Russian support staff, such as drivers, security guards, secretaries, interpreters, cooks, and gardeners. But forcing diplomats to perform these jobs in addition to their regular duties is bound to impede activities like social outreach, visa services, and routine information-gathering, experts say. One staffer, who declined to speak on the record, described the mood in the embassy as “grim.”

But Russia has also hinted that it might retaliate further in “asymmetric” ways. Russian officials have declined to spell that out, and Mr. Putin said in his interview that he hoped further measures would not be needed. But the Moscow daily Kommersant explored a variety of steps Moscow might conceivably take, including blocking a US-sponsored resolution against North Korea in the UN Security Council. Trade turnover between Russia and the US was just $20 billion last year, but Moscow might inflict pain by curtailing export to the US of an exotic but vital list of Russian commodities, such as enriched uranium, titanium, and rocket engines.

Though the US holds most of the cards in any economic slugfest, many US-based companies hold significant stakes in the Russian market, including in information technology (Google, Apple, Microsoft), financial services (Visa, Mastercard), and processed foods (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald's).

“It's possible that Russia could hit US companies, if things got very bad,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “It would harm Russia as well, perhaps even more, but that's the way this kind of conflict goes.”

Hunkering down?

While the Kremlin's diplomatic strike at the US follows closely on the heels of Congress's passage of the new sanctions bill against Russia, the bill is not as significant a motivation as it might seem to Western eyes. No one here believes the new round of sanctions will have much impact on Russia, which is returning to economic growth after being driven into recession three years ago by the first cycle of sanctions after Russia's annexation of Crimea and the drastic fall of global oil prices.

“Russia is a big and resilient country that has more than adequately demonstrated that it cannot be sanctioned to its knees,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs commission of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament.

Other experts point to the fact that Russia and the US have a strong safety net of arms control agreements, mostly fashioned in the late 1980s when the old cold war was being dismantled, that can still be relied upon to provide strategic stability even as the political atmosphere boils over.

“We might be in for a period of tough confrontation, but the situation is not critical. This is not a new cold war,” says Vladimir Dvorkin, a security expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

Mr. Klimov suggests that official Moscow has come to believe that Washington is in the midst of some sort of nervous breakdown, and Russia might do best to hunker down and wait out the crisis.

“America has broken away from reality,” he says. “Its economic weight and political clout are not what they were in the 20th century, and Russia is not the prostrate country it was in the 1990s. They need to stop living in the past and come to terms with things as they are. The problem isn't with us.”

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