Sunday night, Vladimir Putin went on national television and explained his decision to slice American diplomatic staff in Russia by two-thirds. He was retaliating for Barack Obama’s December expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, as well as newly passed congressional sanctions, by kicking out 755 American diplomatic staff—a response over 20 times stronger than Obama’s original retaliation for Russian election meddling. But Putin sounded calm and humble, like a disappointed parent who has no choice left but to send a recalcitrant child to military school. “We were waiting for a long time, thinking that maybe something will change for the better; we kept hope alive that the situation will change,” Putin said. “But judging by everything that’s happened, if something’s going to change, it won’t be soon.”
This is Putin’s way of dressing up a bad situation: try to sound like the sole adult in the room, even as you actively make the situation worse. It’s what Putin did, for example, in Syria, financing and arming the Assad regime while calling for peace talks, then stalling and dragging them out as long as possible, all while taking the same resigned yet exasperated tone of the peacemaker stymied by unruly children.
Because the fact is, the situation is bad, for Moscow and for Washington, and it’s been exacerbated by both sides.
When Obama retaliated in December for Russian election meddling, then-Trump adviser Michael Flynn apparently told the Russians to sit tight because the incoming Trump administration would take care of it. The Russians did as Flynn seems to have advised, and surprised the world by not reacting to Obama’s sanctions. But their patience began to wear thin as the winter turned to spring and then to summer, the months passing and the Trump administration still unable to deliver on its promise. Negotiations between the State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry broke down earlier this month, with the Russians calling the Americans “highway robbers” and the U.S. government refusing to return two Russian compounds in the States, which intelligence officials say were used almost exclusively for espionage.
It was a massive loss of face for the Russians, for whom shows of strength drive a lot of policy. “As you know, we have been very restrained and patient, but at some point we’ll have to respond,” Putin said at a press conference last week. “We can’t just tolerate this kind of disrespect towards our country.” The Russians waited seven months for Trump, whose election they had facilitated and cheered in the hopes that he would undo not just the December sanctions but the ones imposed for the 2014 annexation of Crimea as well. At a certain point, their patience had to break from the strain of turning the other cheek—and therefore looking weak. And the eventual response had to have enough oomph to overcome the blunting effect of delay. Perhaps, had the Russians not been led on, and had they responded immediately in December, the retaliation would have been more proportionate.
The Russians also had to respond to near-unanimously passed congressional sanctions, which Russian media portrayed as a shocking limitation of Trump’s power. Trump had been seen in Russia as a maverick trying, finally, to find common ground with the other great world power, Russia, but held back at every turn by the rabidly anti-Russian Washington establishment—tied down, one Russian close to the foreign ministry told me, “like Gulliver by the Lilliputians.” The sanctions made clear to Moscow that Gulliver wouldn’t be untied and free to embrace them anytime soon, and in the meantime, Russia had to act. (Confusingly, reports in Russian state media also said that the new sanctions were Trump’s way of fulfilling his promise to Americans to reopen coal mines: The sanctions hit Russian energy providers, and would therefore, according to these reports, make Ukraine dependent on overpriced American coal, which would give jobs back to Trump voters.)
It is also worth noting that both the American sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions are problematic. The Russian expulsion of 755 American embassy and consular staff seems likely result in the slashing of support staff jobs: drivers, security guards, administrative personnel—jobs that are mostly held by Russians. That is, many of the staff reductions won’t result in expulsions for Americans, but the loss of a paycheck for hundreds of Russian citizens. Much like its retaliation for the 2012 Magnitsky Act, when Moscow banned American adoptions of Russian children, this round again punishes Russians.
And it doesn’t do too many favors for the Russian state, given that some of those Russians who will be let go from their American embassy jobs were eyes for Russian intelligence. Also, given Russian complaints that it is hard to talk to the Americans because the Trump State Department hasn’t filled key Russia policy roles, this move leaves even fewer avenues for discussion.
But the congressional sanctions are also problematic for the United States. In considering how to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the Obama administration settled on the expulsions and seizures of two compounds because they were the only remaining “good” options. “We had exhausted all the low-hanging fruit for [imposing sanctions for the invasion of] Ukraine, which were measures that would hurt the Russians more than they hurt the United States,” a senior Obama administration official told me. “The next level of sectoral sanctions were deemed by Treasury to be very powerful and deemed very likely that there would be blowback for us and our allies.”
Moreover, if the Obama administration had worked to get the European Union to impose sanctions against Russia in 2014, this round would be a strictly American—that is, unilateral—action, punishment for meddling in American elections. “The Europeans were not available to us on this,” the Obama official said. Now the Europeans are considering punishing the U.S. for punishing Russia and causing collateral damage to European economic interests, especially in the transport and energy sectors. And that is a win for Putin, who has long sought to peel off the EU, or at least some of its member countries, and thus undermine the effect of the 2014 sanctions. (In the wake of Brexit, for example, Moscow was immediately trying to get the British to back out of anti-Russia sanctions.)
There is another problem for the United States: Putin insists, and most Russians believe, that Russia played no role in the American presidential election, despite the unanimous conclusion of the American intelligence community. The fact that the American president and the right-wing media continue to insist the same means the legitimacy of the sanctions will be easy for the Russians to undermine. It also allows Russia to continue being a wedge issue, ripping apart the American political landscape. That might be slight solace for a man whose hopes that a President Trump would bring a friendlier phase of Russian-American relations backfired spectacularly, but doubtless Putin will take it.