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'It could still get worse': US-Russia tensions rise with expulsion of diplomats

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. (Jorge Silva/Pool Photo via AP)

For years, officials and experts have sounded the alarm over the disintegrating relationship between the United States and Russia, warning that the two historic adversaries are careening toward another Cold War-style standoff. Even as U.S.-Russia relations reach a new low point with the latest diplomatic tit-for-tat, experts say we have not yet hit the bottom of the barrel.

On Monday, the United States and more than 20 of its NATO and European allies coordinated an unprecedented diplomatic action against Russia in response to Moscow's alleged attempt to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on British soil.

The action was the "largest expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in United States history," U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman said in a Monday announcement. The expulsion was not only unprecedented in its size, but also coordination.

"The administration surprised many with the severity and extent of their actions against Russia," said Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former Pentagon strategist. "To their credit, it was unprecedented that they were able to coordinate a transatlantic expulsion where a multilateral range of countries worked together to expel one country's diplomats—that's almost unheard of."

The unprecedented response from the United States and its allies is directly related to the seriousness of the attack. According to British authorities, Skripol and his daughter were poisoned with a highly sophisticated nerve agent developed for military use. British Prime Minister Theresa May said that Russia is the only country with "the capability, the intent and the motive to carry out such an act."

All told, the United States and its allies are expected to banish roughly 150 Russian officials.

In the United States, 48 officials accused of using the cover of diplomacy to conduct intelligence operations will be expelled from Russia's Mission to the United States, along with 12 individuals operating out of the Russian Mission to the United Nations.

The U.S. government will also shutter the Russian consulate in Seattle, eliminating the last official Russian presence on the west coast. Russia's office in San Francisco was shut down in 2016 after Russia responded to U.S. sanctions by cutting U.S. embassy staff in Moscow by 775.

Russian officials, who deny any role in poisoning Skripol have vowed retaliation against the United States. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that Russia "will be guided by the principle of reciprocity."

On Monday, the Russian Embassy appealed to its Twitter followers with an informal poll asking which U.S. consular office Russia should close in response to the shuttering of Russia's office in Seattle. Respondents opted for the St. Petersburg.

Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, called the diplomatic expulsion a "grave mistake," saying the Trump administration is "undercutting a little what we still have in Russian-American relations."

TENSIONS THAT MIRROR THE COLD WAR

As the United States and its NATO allies line up against Russian aggression, many have warned of a new Cold War. Simakovsky resisted the comparison, noting "there is still room for the relationship to get worse."

The risk of escalation between and the possibility of actual conflict between the two sides in Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan or even cyberspace "mirrors" tensions during the Cold War, he noted, but relations are not yet at the point of both sides threatening complete annihilation of the other.

According to Matthew Rojansky, Russian scholar at the Wilson Center and Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, the relationship is more likely to get worse before it gets better.

The brazenness of the attack on Skripol, is a "cold shower reminder of just how bad this relationship can get," said Rojansky. The coordinated response to the attack in Salisbury is part of an increasing recognition that the United States and the west are in conflict with Russia. "In some ways, 'this is war,' could be the mantra for where we are now," he noted.

That reality has already set in at the Pentagon. In revealing the 2018 National Security Strategy, Defense Secretary James Mattis acknowledged that "great power competition" between the United States and advanced rivals like Russia and China, "is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

In a sense, the return to Cold War conflict management may prove to be a positive step after decades of the United States and many NATO allies forgetting the existential threat posed by Russia, Rojansky said.

"We have forgotten, in a sense, what the real risk is here and just how disastrous our relationship with Russia can be," he said. To address that, he advised both sides sit down, acknowledge the state of conflict and, as in the Cold War, agree to how far either side is willing to go in the conflict. "Because if there aren't limits, we can to some very dangerous extremes."

LIMITS ON TRUMP AND PUTIN

Domestic politics in both Russia and the United States are also pushing both countries closer to conflict than cooperation.

Trump has faced criticism at home for his alleged ties to Russia, his often kind words for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his reluctance to impose congressionally mandated sanctions. In spite of his style, the Trump administration has arguably gone farther in confronting Russia than President Barack Obama.

In addition to the diplomatic expulsions, Trump has approved the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine, an action that the Obama administration refrained from taking despite encouragement from Congress. Trump has also continued the high level of U.S. support for NATO and the deployment of troops in Eastern Europe, despite threatening NATO members who he said do not pay their "fair share" for mutual defense.

Those "concrete" actions from the Trump administration speak louder than either "fuzzy statements" praising Putin or harsh statements, Rojansky explained. "I don't think it's that important whether the president talks tough or not. I think what the administration does is very important and I think the Russians see it that way too," he added.

Amid the heated words and tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions this week, officials in Washington and Moscow repeated the long-standing position that both sides would benefit from improved relations.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that the United States is open to a more productive relationship with Russia, but "an improved relationship will only be possible if the Russian government changes its behavior."

Ultimately, that is not likely to happen, Rojansky advised. After Putin secured another six-year term in office, he has "few if any incentives, from a domestic political perspective" to improve relations with the United States.

"This narrative of Russia under attack by the evil forces of the west is working wonders for him domestically," he added.

For Trump, he is limited in his ability to improve ties with Russia because of the ongoing investigation by Robert Mueller into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

"The Trump administration is fundamentally hampered in what it can achieve in changing the relationship with Russia," Simakovsky explained. Primarily because of Trump's alleged ties to Russian election interference and the president's early praise for Putin. "I think it's always going to be difficult to trust this administration on Russia policy."

In the coming days, Trump will face additional pressure to take further steps against Russia. On Tuesday, British Prime Minister May called for a "long-term response" to Russia's actions, raising the bar for further coordinated steps by members of the NATO alliance and European Union.

Trump will also meet with leaders of the Baltic States next week. The leaders are expected to discuss security partnerships and efforts to wean the countries off of Russian energy sources.




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