• Reuters, Bloomberg


Russian President Vladimir Putin tossed President-elect Donald Trump a bouquet in December when he chose not to retaliate for the U.S. expulsion of Russian diplomats and the seizure of Russian diplomatic compounds.

The honeymoon is over.

A tit-for-tat decision by Russia on Friday to expel hundreds of U.S. diplomats and seize two U.S. compounds may be an acknowledgment that Trump’s ability to bring better ties is limited and be the start of a new downward spiral in relations.

Russia took the step after the U.S. Senate on Thursday sent a breathtaking signal that it does not trust Trump on Russia by passing a bill that imposes new sanctions on Moscow and ties the president’s hands if he seeks to ease them.

The White House issued a statement on Friday night saying Trump had negotiated changes to the legislation and now intends to sign it.

The Russians “have taken Trump’s measure, and while they are willing to exploit his goofy fixation on Putin and naive sense you can do deals with someone like Putin … they realize his clownish performance as president makes it really hard for him to deliver on any of the big things that Russia wants,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Russia expert on the National Security Council.

At the top of Russia’s wish list is an easing of U.S. sanctions imposed for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its destabilization of eastern Ukraine — something the Senate action would all but rule out. Another item would be formal U.S. recognition of Russia’s claim to Crimea, but this is all but inconceivable.

“Trump’s performance surely has left nobody in Moscow with the impression he is a guy who can deliver,” said Weiss, who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.

Trump’s desire to improve relations, often expressed during the 2016 presidential campaign, has been hamstrung by findings from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered to help him against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

A federal investigation and multiple congressional probes are looking into the possibility that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, making it harder for Trump to open a new chapter with Putin.

Russia denies it interfered in the election, and Trump has said there was no collusion.

The Senate’s 98-2 passage of the sanctions bill, which followed a 419-3 vote in the House of Representatives, forces Trump to take a hard line on Moscow or veto the legislation and infuriate his fellow Republicans.

The huge margins mean Congress could easily override a veto.

Weiss suggested that Trump’s low approval ratings at home, his tendency to alienate NATO allies such as Germany and his inability to pass domestic legislation all contribute to a Russian perception that he is weakening the United States.

“(That) is going to pay dividends for Moscow, so there is no need to turn him away from the course he is already on, which is self-destructive and bad for America’s standing internationally. All of that is a huge win for the Kremlin,” Weiss said.

Russia gave the United States until Sept. 1 to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 people — the number of Russian diplomats left in the United States after Washington expelled 35 Russians in December because of the alleged election hacking.

It also said it would seize a Moscow compound used by U.S. diplomats, as well as a U.S. diplomatic warehouse.

Moscow’s latest move “suggests a period of much more intense and damaging conflict lies ahead,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert and director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “This is a dangerous moment.”

The erosion in ties also may make it more difficult for Trump to achieve foreign policy breakthroughs on key issues, including rallying international support against North Korea, pressuring Iran over its ballistic missile program and expanding cease-fire zones in Syria. Russia has a role to play in all three areas, leaving the U.S. with fewer options if the two nations are unable to reach an accord.

“This is a serious problem for U.S. national security interests linked to the wide range of issues on which Russians and Americans have to find ways to work together,” Rojansky said via email.

Some former officials said Russia could also take other steps, such as seeking to help Russian-backed forces seize more ground in eastern Ukraine or to try to limit U.S. air operations in Syria, though others said any reaction might be more muted.

Russia could look at imposing economic countersanctions against the United States, the former official said, though retaliation in Ukraine or Syria is less likely because it probably would lead to a U.S. counterresponse.

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said he does not think that Russia will escalate tensions with the United States just yet because Trump’s assertions that he wants better relations with Moscow are encouraging Putin to continue seeking some kind of accommodation with the U.S. president.

“I don’t think they are going to walk away from that just yet,” said McFaul. “I believe that Putin still believes there might be something he can do with Trump.”

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