Analysis

Putin’s Bet on a Trump Presidency Backfires Spectacularly

If the sanctions passed by Congress last week sent any message to Moscow, it was that Mr. Trump’s hands are tied in dealing with Moscow, probably for years to come

Trump meets Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

A little more than a year after the Russian effort to interfere in the U.S. presidential election came to light, the diplomatic fallout — an unraveling of the relationship between Moscow and Washington on a scale not seen in decades — is taking its toll.

President Vladimir Putin bet that Donald Trump, who had spoken fondly of Russia and its authoritarian leader for years, would treat his nation as Putin has longed to have it treated by the West. That is, as the superpower it once was, or at least a major force to be reckoned with, from Syria to Europe, and boasting a military revived after two decades of neglect.

That bet has backfired, spectacularly. If the sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress last week sent any message to Moscow, it was that Trump’s hands are now tied in dealing with Moscow, probably for years to come.

Just weeks after the two leaders spent hours in seemingly friendly conversation in Hamburg, Germany, the prospect of the kinds of deals Trump once mused about in interviews seem more distant than ever. Congress is not ready to forgive the annexation of Crimea, nor allow extensive reinvestment in Russian energy. The new sanctions were passed by a coalition of Democrats who blame Putin for contributing to Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Republicans fearful that their president misunderstands who he is dealing with in Moscow.

So with his decision to order that hundreds of U.S. diplomats and Russians working for the U.S. Embassy leave their posts, Putin, known as a great tactician but not a great strategist, has changed course again. For now, U.S. officials and outside experts said Sunday, he seems to believe his greater leverage lies in escalating the dispute, Cold War-style, rather than subtly trying to manipulate events with a mix of subterfuge, cyberattacks and information warfare.

The United States Embassy in Moscow. It was unclear how President Vladimir V. Putin’s announcement would affect day-to-day relations
Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

But it is unclear how much the announcement will affect day-to-day relations. While the Russian media said 755 diplomats would be barred from working, and presumably expelled, there do not appear to be anything close to 755 U.S. diplomats working in Russia.

That figure almost certainly includes Russian nationals working at the embassy, usually in nonsensitive jobs. (A 2013 State Department inspector general’s report, the last concrete numbers publicly available, said there were 934 “locally employed” staff members at the Moscow Embassy and three consulates, out of 1,279 total staff members. That would leave roughly 345 Americans, many of whom report regular harassment by Russian officials.) And of course there are many nondiplomats working for the U.S. government in Russia at any given time — experts from departments across the government, from energy to agriculture, and a large station of spies, some working under diplomatic cover.

“One of Putin’s greatest goals is to assure Russia is treated as if it was still the Soviet Union, a nuclear power that has to be respected and feared,” said Angela Stent, director of Eurasian, Russian and East European studies at Georgetown University. “And he thought he might get that from Trump,” said Stent, who was the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia during the administration of George W. Bush.

But now, she added, the Russians look at the chaos in the White House “and see a level of unpredictability there, which makes them nervous.” The reaction, she said, was to retreat to old habits — and the expulsion of diplomats is, of course, one of the oldest.

Those in the administration who served during the Cold War are also returning to that terminology. Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, told a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, this month that he had no doubt that the Russians “are trying to undermine Western democracy.” His boss has never uttered a similar phrase.

A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition 

of anonymity on what has become one of the most sensitive diplomatic problems facing the Trump administration, said the White House had not given up hopes for a better relationship. Putin’s interview on Russian television, in which he announced the reduction in staff, was free of bombast, the official noted. Russia seems uncertain about the direction of the relationship, leaving open the possibility of a reversal.

“The Russians would have preferred not to head down this path, but Putin didn’t feel he had a choice but to respond in the classic tit-for-tat manner,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who has served in a number of senior intelligence roles for the United States, including in Russia. “We’ve been in a new Cold War for some time now. Any hope for a short-term improvement in relations is gone.”

That downturn accelerated in the last days of the Obama administration, he argued, “when emotions took over the relationship.” Now, said Mowatt-Larssen, who recently became director of intelligence and defense projects at the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, “fear has replaced anger in dealing with Russia.”

Sergey Lavrov, the savvy Russian foreign minister, has struck a measured tone in his conversations with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In public, he has blamed not Trump, or the investigation into the Russian influence operation around the election, but Congress. “The latest developments have demonstrated that the U.S. policy turns out to be in the hands of Russophobic forces that are pushing Washington toward confrontation,” the Foreign Ministry said Friday, after the passage of the latest sanctions act.

Forty-eight hours later, Putin announced the huge reduction in diplomatic staffing. He said the order would take effect Sept. 1. That leaves time for haggling.

But the fundamental issue will not go away by then. Putin has now concluded that his central objective — getting relief from the U.S. and European sanctions that followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 — is years away. Once new sanctions are enshrined in law, like the ones Congress passed and Trump has reluctantly agreed to sign to avoid an override of his veto, they generally stay on the books for years.