The long-awaited shoe-drop on Barack Obama’s diplomatic sanctions over Russian interference finally took place today — amplified by new action in Congress. The Putin regime delayed its response to the December expulsion of three dozen diplomatic personnel and the seizure of two compounds. Today, the Kremlin demanded the expulsion of hundreds of American diplomatic staff in retaliation:
The United States will be forced to cut hundreds of its embassy staff in Russia, the Interfax news agency quoted a source as saying, after Moscow retaliated on Friday for what it said were proposed illegal U.S. sanctions against it.
“We are talking not about dozens, but hundreds of diplomatic and technical staff who work for U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia,” the agency quoted the source as saying.
The diplomatic staff will have to leave by September 1st, according to Interfax. Russia had a more proportional response to the refusal of the Trump administration to return the two seized compounds. Reuters reports that Putin will seize two American properties — a dacha compound for diplomatic personnel, and a warehouse. That seems like a bad trade for Russia when compared to the larger estates seized by the US in New York and Maryland, but perhaps the Russian real estate market isn’t all that peppy these days. More likely these properties had significance for American operations, which Russia hopes to impede.
The disproportionate response on personnel seems aimed at Congress for their new sanctions on Russia. The Senate passed the bill yesterday 98-2, after the House passed in 419-3. (Our friend Andrew Malcolm will have more on this later today here at Hot Air.) Putin may be pressuring Trump to veto the bill, but that’s not going to do much good:
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, however, said he was confident the president would enact the bill into law.
“I’ve gotten no indications that they are considering vetoing it. They can count, they understand math and I just can’t imagine they are considering doing so,” he told reporter. “If I were advising them, to even consider vetoing something with this support is not probably in anybody’s interest.“
Russia warned about any new US expulsions too, which may seem strange given the apparent disproportionality of their action. However, the Financial Times reports that the orders are calculated to bring the US and Russian diplomatic team sizes into parity:
The foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday that it would compel the US to limit its personnel in the Moscow embassy and its consulates in St Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, and Vladivostok to 455 people, the same as the number of Russian diplomats currently active in the US. The embassy will also be unable to use a storage compound and a summer house in Moscow.
The Russian measures match sanctions passed in the waning days of Barack Obama’s US administration last year that expelled 35 diplomats and seized two Russian compounds in response to Moscow’s alleged interference in the US presidential election. Russian President Vladimir Putin declined to respond at the time as a gesture of goodwill to his then-incoming US counterpart, Donald Trump.
The Russians also rebuked the US for its “Russophobia” and the choice to go down “the path of open confrontation with our country” as reasons for retaliating now. A better explanation is that they have belatedly realized that their hacking and disinformation campaigns in 2015-16 may have given them some short-term satisfaction, but ended up making it impossible for anyone to argue for better cooperation with Moscow. Their only option now is to conduct the usual diplomatic tit-for-tat and act offended.
Trump’s not likely to escalate beyond this, but they now know that Trump’s not going to be able to back off either, even if he were so inclined. Russia made that impossible. Congrats on the own-goal, fellas.