US-Russia ties going south


By M K Bhadrakumar 

Russia and the United States could be hurtling toward a showdown following Moscow’s decision on Friday to retaliate, finally, against President Barack Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in the US and the impounding of two Russian compounds on December 30 last year.

Consular issues usually signal the real state of play in inter-state relations – and often provide a litmus test. Obama’s intention was most certainly to complicate the Russian-American relationship to a point of no return by the time his successor Donald Trump moved into the White House. Obama expected his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to react strongly, which in turn would have triggered a first-rate crisis in the relationship. But Putin saw through Obama’s game.

He opted instead to tackle President Donald Trump on a pleasant note. But then, Russia eventually became such a toxic subject in the Washington circuit that Trump was put on the defensive when it came to restoring the confiscated Russian properties or granting visas to Russian diplomats newly assigned to the US.

Nonetheless, Moscow waited patiently for over six months before concluding that enough is enough. And it has now hit Washington very hard, as the Foreign Ministry statement on Friday suggests. Moscow had the option to expel 35 American diplomats, but instead chose to apply the principle of parity by demanding that the number of personnel posted in the Moscow embassy and in the 3 American consulates (St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok) should not exceed 455 (which is the current strength of Russian personnel in the US.)

The Americans are shell-shocked because, in effect, hundreds of personnel will now have to be called back to Washington. Of course, Moscow has graciously left it to Washington to shuffle the personnel but the ceiling will be at 455, exactly on par with the slots Washington has provided for Russia. Unlike Obama’s decision to order the expelled Russian diplomats to leave the US within 72 hours, Moscow is allowing a month’s time for the excess US personnel to leave Russia.

Meanwhile, Russians also impounded 2 American compounds – a dacha in the bucolic environs of Moscow, which American diplomats and families use for R&R, and a warehouse where they store their supplies imported duty-free from abroad.

The catch is that Americans cannot complain, because parity and reciprocity are universally accepted principles in inter-state relations and Moscow is only demanding what it is entitled to – an equal relationship based on reciprocity. But in reality, the US embassy in Moscow is going to be crippled.

It is an ugly situation for Washington but entirely self-invited, thanks to Obama’s petulance and his ignorance of the Russian grit if challenged. The ‘Deep State’ in the US will cry for Russian blood because the bulk of American personnel to be recalled are most certainly spooks. The CIA station in Russia runs a big show and its undercover operations will be seriously affected.

Moscow has forewarned that there will be a ‘tit-for-tat’ response to any further moves against Russian diplomats in the US. The strong possibility is that a further round of expulsions of diplomats is just round the corner. There is always an option for Washington to discuss and resolve the differences to mutual satisfaction, but the political climate in Washington is not conducive for that.

Interestingly, Moscow has further clarified that Friday’s announcement is only by way of retaliation against Obama’s ill-advised move last December and Moscow reserves the right to react separately apropos the latest US sanctions.

The Russians have taken a tough line, no doubt, based on the estimation that a significant improvement in relations need not be expected for the foreseeable future. This is also evident from an interview with ABC News by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on Sunday.

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