It's the biggest mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from the US in history, exceeding even the most bitter episodes of the old cold war.
And, amplified by allegations of espionage, it may also represent a breaking point in what had become an increasingly fragile US-Russian relationship.
After more than a year of serial diplomatic crises, punctuated by tit-for-tat expulsions, experts say the 60 Russians being kicked out of the US amid a show of Western anti-Russian solidarity over the Skripal affair may signal the end of any functional diplomacy between the two countries. In addition to the expulsions, the US is closing Moscow’s consulate in Seattle, Russia’s last diplomatic presence on the West Coast.
The spiraling crisis could affect Russians beyond official circles by making the Kremlin narrative of a Russia surrounded by enemies seem more credible, and by heightening public suspicions of all Westerners. For those Russians who had harbored hopes that President Trump might fulfill his election pledges to improve relations with Russia, the expulsions come as a hard letdown.
Russian retaliation, delayed by the country's angry and grief-stricken preoccupation with a Siberian mall fire that killed at least 64 people Sunday, many of them children, is expected by the end of the week. It seems likely to eviscerate the skeleton staff that's been managing the US Embassy in Moscow since the last round of expulsions and include the closure of a key US consulate, perhaps Vladivostok or Yekaterinburg.
The Russians may escalate by also closing non-diplomatic US offices in Russia, as they did amid a similar exchange with Britain last week, in which they shut down the culturally oriented British Council.
“This is definitely a new stage in the US-Russia confrontation, and it looks likely to be an open-ended one,” says Andrei Kortunov, director of the semi-official Russian International Affairs Council. “Given the sheer scale of the expulsions from the US, it might incapacitate Russian diplomatic activity altogether. There is a big Russian community out on the West Coast of the US, who will now find it hard to get the simplest consular services.”
Another ominous note is the White House's insistence that the 60 Russian diplomats are being removed for national security reasons, because they are spies. In a videotaped press statement, US Ambassador Jon Huntsman said the expulsions “make the United States a safer place by limiting the ability of Russia to spy on Americans, and conduct covert activities that threaten America's national security.”
Experts point out that while intelligence agents are traditionally embedded in just about every embassy on earth, their existence is seldom highlighted in such blanket terms.
The reasons seem obvious: Any kind of Russian diplomatic activity in the US will now be demonized. The same, however, will happen in Russia, where the political culture is far more receptive to the idea that all foreigners are spies. The result will be to imperil the extensive community outreach efforts that successive US ambassadors to Moscow have invested heavily in, while also putting at risk ordinary Russians who have until recently mixed relatively freely with US diplomats.
Darkening Russian mood
“If Russia responds in the same manner, isolation will become inevitable,” says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies. “Development in any country depends on preserving the full spectrum of relations with the outside world. Take out an element, and the it affects the whole system. We remember all too well the times of the Iron Curtain, and how it condemned our country to backwardness.”
The mood of the Russian public, once quite pro-American, seems set to take another dark anti-Western turn. Analysts say average Russians would be horrified if it were proved their leaders had authorized a nerve gas attack, such as the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, on foreign soil. But in the absence of such proof, or even clear evidence, they tend to believe the Kremlin's denials and see Western claims as unprovoked insults and blind anti-Russian hostility.
“So far there is no suspect, no clear picture of how the crime unfolded, and no motive,” being offered by the British government in the Skripal case, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Yet political blame came swiftly, and punishment followed shortly thereafter.
“It almost doesn't matter what evidence eventually emerges, the lines have already been drawn,” he says. “Everyone is already trapped by their own narrative. So, of course, Russians will consolidate behind the Kremlin more than ever.”
Compared with the US action, the orchestrated expulsions of Russian diplomats from more than 20 allied countries appear more measured and even symbolic. Russian retaliation, therefore, seems likely to focus on the US.
“We see that every country acts differently,” says Leonid Gusev, a researcher with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which is run by the Foreign Ministry. “Some expelled Russian diplomats, some more, some less. There are some countries that didn't expel any at all. So every country will be treated in a separate way.”
What dialogue is left
Even if diplomacy breaks down completely, there remain a few dwindling channels of communication. Russian and US military establishments appear to be still coordinating effectively in Syria. The controversial visit of three Russian intelligence chiefs to Washington earlier this year suggests that those folks are still able to talk to each other about common challenges like terrorism. And the fraying nuclear arms control regime has its own apparatus for verification and dispute resolution that is still functioning.
“All our understandings about US politics have been shattered,” says Mr. Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council. “We were used to the idea that Russia would be a football in American elections, with candidates competing to talk tough about us. Then, after the election, there would be a summit with the new president, and some new affirmation of the relationship would emerge.
“But Trump was different from the start,” he continues. “And now it looks like Russia is such a toxic asset for him that he cannot afford to do anything that looks like a concession to us. Only a strong president can afford to build a positive relationship with Russia, and he is not able.
“It seems possible that this sweeping expulsion was an emotional decision by Trump,” Kortunov says. “He felt he needed to demonstrate his anti-Russia credentials, and he did this. But the consequences will be with us for a long time.”