On Thursday, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry and informed of the expulsions. Russian media reported that 58 U.S. diplomats would be expelled from the embassy in Moscow, while two would be expelled from the consulate in Yekaterinburg. St. Petersburg, where the U.S. consulate is being closed, was the site of the original U.S. mission to Russia in 1780, and has symbolic value for U.S.-Russian relations. Russia also said it would expel an equal number of diplomats from the countries that acted against its officials.
“We invite the U.S. government, which is encouraging and fanning the campaign of slander against our country, to rethink and stop these reckless actions destroying our bilateral relations,” a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said Thursday.
Russia’s relations with the West have been worsening at least since its annexation in 2014 of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Although the expulsions may have reached their logical conclusions with Thursday’s announcement, the tensions that prompted them are only likely to rise. Russia and the West are united when it comes to fighting terrorism, but they are on the opposite side of some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
Russia’s increasingly muscular foreign policy in countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—countries Moscow regards as part of its sphere of influence—worry those nations, the EU, and NATO. And Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war decidedly shifted the balance of that conflict toward Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s client. Moscow has also re-emerged as a major player in Afghanistan, as well as in North Korea, and in talks over the Iranian nuclear agreement. Any progress on any of those issues will need Russia’s buy-in.
Russia had hoped for closer relations with the United States after the election of President Trump, but that has not happened despite cooperation on some issues such as the fight against ISIS. Moscow’s announcement Thursday is an indication that Russia will not sit idly by as the West punishes it for its actions—whether those punishments are justified or not. The Yeltsin years of chaos have been replaced by Putin’s re-energized Russia that has returned to many of its Cold War-era policies—as well as practices.
Still, retaliatory expulsions—until relatively recently viewed as a vestige of the Cold War—have become common, even if, as my colleague Yasmeen Serhan notes, their impact is limited. Such expulsions have only increased as relations between Russia and the West deteriorate.
Last August, the U.S. closed the Russian consulate in San Francisco as retaliation for Moscow’s decision the previous month to seize two U.S. diplomatic properties in Russia and order the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic staff in the country by 755 people (mostly Russian employees). That move by Moscow was itself in 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.