“Now those kinds of rules aren’t so clear anymore. We don’t have the same kind of institutional structure for a bipolar world,” she said. “And for those reasons, it’s difficult to see where this downward spiral ends.”
Until Friday, Russia’s response to the expulsions of its diplomats was a precise tit-for-tat, suggesting that Moscow, which denies it had a role in the assassination attempt against the Skripals, didn’t want to make the situation deteriorate further by one-upping other countries’ reprisals. But the Russian Foreign Ministry’s order of the reduction in the size of the British diplomatic mission suggests there may be more actions ahead—unless the U.K. decides to accept the decision and not respond in a commensurate manner.
Moscow acted similarly last fall when it ordered the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic staff in the country by 755 people to match the number of Russian staff in the U.S. That move was a response to the Obama administration’s decision in December 2016 to expel 30 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and seize Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland—a move that came in response to Moscow’s interference in the U.S. presidential election.
“I don’t think this is a decision that the United States is taking lightly,” Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, told me about the most recent round of expulsions. “I don’t think that they want to continue to do this. But Russia leaves us no choice with its behavior.”
Tensions between the two sides predate both the assassination attempt against the Skripals and the U.S. presidential election. They began after Russia’s annexation in 2013 of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Western nations imposed sanctions against Russia for its actions, which continue as it supports a breakaway region in Ukraine. The two sides are also at odds over the future of Syria where Moscow backs Bashar al-Assad; the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, which Russia, a signatory, supports (European countries do, too; the Trump administration has signaled it may withdraw from the deal); and other global conflicts. Indeed it is conflicts such as these that may be major sites of future tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Last month in Syria, for example, U.S. forces killed about 200 Russian mercenaries fighting on Assad’s behalf in Syria.
“More of this is going to continue to happen because the avenues of communication are not as good as they may have been during the Cold War period for deconfliction,” Polyakova told me.
There is another difference between the Cold War period and today, Jankowicz said: the differing nature of the administrations in Washington.
“In the Reagan administration, it was clear from every single official—from a random official at the State Department on up to President Reagan himself— where the Reagan administration stood on Russia. And to me it’s not really clear where the Trump administration stands.” She cited President Trump’s failure to publicly criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump’s assertion last November that Russia “can greatly help” on a host of issues from North Korea to Ukraine, and his reported resistance to selling arms to Ukraine. “There’s just such an incongruity in the decisions his administration is making and what the president says or does not say,” she said. “His silence to me is deafening—and that’s the difference between Reagan-era Cold War policies and what we’re seeing today.”