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.