In an interview on Russian state television, Putin expressed frustration with the continued attempts by the U.S. to punish or otherwise apply pressure on Russia, most recently with Congress’s vote last week to enshrine Obama-era sanctions into law, making it harder for Trump to undo them. Putin suggested that his patience had worn thin. “We waited for quite a long time that, perhaps, something will change for the better. We held out hope that the situation would somehow change,” he said. “But, judging by everything, if it changes, it will not be soon.” In response, he announced, Russia would order the United States to cut the number of staff at U.S. diplomatic missions in the country by seven hundred and fifty-five people, a reduction of more than sixty per cent from current levels.
The move is the most bitter démarche in U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations since 1986, when, in the twilight of the Cold War, the Soviet Union responded to the expulsion of fifty-five Soviet diplomats from the United States by barring all Soviet citizens from working for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. But who, exactly, are those now getting kicked out? Most of them, in fact, are Russians. According to a report posted on the Diplopundit blog, as of 2013, the U.S. Embassy and its three consulates in Russia employed about twelve hundred people. (The numbers are believed to be relatively stable over the last four years.) Of those, around three hundred were U.S. direct-hire positions—foreign-service officers from the State Department and representatives of other U.S. agencies, from the F.B.I. to NASA. The rest, more than nine hundred and thirty people, were local hires. Unlike the Russian Embassy in Washington, for example, which hires virtually no Americans, it is the usual practice of American Embassies and consulates around the world to rely on a large contingent of local staff to carry out administrative and technical work.
The bulk of the cuts required by Putin’s order will hit exactly that category: Russian citizens who maintain the U.S. Embassy’s fleet of cars, work as clerks in the visa and consular offices, deliver mail and packages, fix busted water pipes, and cook lunch in the cafeteria. They won’t be forced to leave the country, like those U.S. diplomats and other government employees whom the State Department will send home to hit the required number of seven hundred and fifty-five, but they will lose their jobs—and in so doing, greatly slow down the everyday work of U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia. That point is certainly not lost on Putin, who called the staffing cuts “biting”: not only as a symbol but as a real impediment to maintaining business as usual.
In ordering the reductions, Putin was endorsing a proposal first made last week by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which called on the United States to reduce its number of employees at its Embassies and consulates in Russia “into strict correspondence with the number of Russian diplomats and technical staff currently working in the United States”—that is, four hundred and fifty-five people. The statement from the Foreign Ministry, rueful without shutting the door entirely, listed all the issues on which the two countries coöperate, from counterterrorism to nonproliferation, while ultimately lamenting how “the United States is using Russia’s alleged interference in its domestic affairs as an absolutely contrived excuse for its persevering and crude campaigns against Russia.” Whereas the Russian side “adhered to responsible and reserved behaviour,” the statement went on, “the latest events confirm that certain circles in the US are fixated on Russophobia and open confrontation with our country.”
Taken together, the particular wording of the Foreign Ministry’s communiqué—talking of “certain circles”—and the timing of Putin’s own announcement suggest that the Kremlin might yet hope it can still split Trump from Congress and the political establishment in Washington. In the Kremlin’s understanding, those are the exact forces that hold Trump back from improving relations with Russia and delivering some tangible results, whether easing sanctions or coöperating in Syria. (On that question, results have been mixed: in April, Trump ordered a missile strike against regime targets, greatly upsetting Moscow; last week, he cancelled a C.I.A. program to arm anti-Assad rebels, a move long on the Kremlin’s wish list.)
Watching Russian television these past months, one encounters the same dark obsessions with the American “deep state” found among Trump’s more conspiratorially inclined supporters in the United States: if not for those pesky anti-Russian, and anti-Trump, elements peppered throughout the U.S. bureaucracy, Trump could be the man Russia knows he is and whom he wants to be deep down. In mid-July, after news broke of a meeting last year between Donald Trump, Jr., and a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower, Dmitry Kiselev, Russian television’s most reliably sour and gloomy propagandist, spoke of a “united campaign by the Democrats and liberal media” before rattling off a number of conspiracy theories supposedly linked to the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton family.
Putin has not yet given up on Trump entirely. The goal of this latest move is not to break with Trump or to forswear working with him but, rather, to provide him with both a warning and an opening. The tactic of sowing discord and exploiting existing fissures is one of the more consistent motifs in Russia’s Putin-era foreign policy. For years, Moscow has tried to split the United States and Europe, driving a wedge between Washington and Brussels on everything from sanctions to NATO, while also looking to exacerbate disagreements among E.U. member states themselves.
Putin is now trying out the same trick in his relationship with the Trump Administration, by trying to appeal to Trump the individual and to peel him away from other institutions less inclined to make nice with Russia, whether it be Congress or the intelligence services. As Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, noted, Putin announced his decision after the congressional vote but before Trump signed the sanctions into law, meaning that his ire was directed at the former while making an appeal to the latter. Perhaps Putin believes that Trump could now refuse to sign the bill in its current form, citing the impending damage to U.S. diplomatic operations. Also, the cuts required by Putin’s edict don’t go into effect until September—enough time, potentially, to amend or soften its provisions if relations with Trump take a more hopeful turn. They may prove to be an opening gambit in negotiations rather than an ironclad position.
Another consistent feature of the Russian response to sanctions over the years has been the element of self-injury. In part, this is due to the great economic disparity between itself and the West: Russia imports most of its consumer goods and exports very few, and its largest firms are reliant on Western banks and financial institutions. A trade war with the United States or Europe would be lost from the start. Russia has tended to answer asymmetrically, by making its own market and citizens into both weapons and victims: in 2013, it banned Americans from adopting Russian orphans; in 2014, it imposed sanctions on American and European food imports, which led to both an increase in consumer food prices and a boon for the domestic agriculture industry.
Now, if Putin’s diplomatic cuts are fully enacted, it will be Russians who will likely suffer the most, both in terms of lost jobs and difficulty in visiting the United States, especially on business, when trips can materialize quickly. Michael McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, predicted that the cuts to local consular staff would mean that Russians will have to wait “weeks, if not months” for visas. That, too, is another, more subtle aim of Russian counter-sanctions: to make Russian citizens feel punished and ostracized as part of a new Cold War, even if those measures actually initiate with Russia itself. That’s a nuance that can easily be papered over on state television—not to mention used as a patriotic rallying cry for Putin’s reëlection campaign next year, which otherwise has yet to find a particularly coherent or effective message. In Moscow, just like in Washington, there are plenty of reasons why a frosty, confrontational tone suits just fine—it’s the default setting for a reason, and it may stay that way, no matter what Putin or Trump had envisioned.
Author: Joshua Yaffa