The Slatest

U.S. Expels 60 Russian Diplomats As Part of International Response to Nerve Agent Attack

The sign for the Russian Embassy is viewed in Washington.
The sign for the Russian Embassy in Washington on Monday.
Jim Watson/Getty Images

The U.S. has joined with more than a dozen other countries to retaliate against Russia for the nerve agent attack in Britain earlier this month. The Trump administration has expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle. The order includes 12 spies that the U.S. believes are working at Russia’s U.N. consulate in New York. According to the AP, the Seattle facility was a counterintelligence concern because of its proximity to a U.S. naval base.

Fourteen EU member states—more than half of the members—as well as Canada are also expelling Russian diplomatic staff, EU chief Donald Tusk announced Monday. Britain had already expelled 23 Russian diplomats over the attack that hospitalized ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on March 4 in Salisbury, England. Russia, which denies involvement in the attack and accused Britain of orchestrating an anti-Russian campaign, expelled 23 British diplomats last week in response and is likely to further retaliate  against Monday’s expulsions.

The United States’ actions follow its decision two weeks ago to slap new sanctions on 19 Russian individuals and five organizations. While those sanctions were in response to interference in the 2016 presidential election and various cyberoperations, the British attack was also mentioned in the Treasury Department announcement. The Obama administration had expelled 35 Russian “intelligence operatives” and shuttered two Russian-owned facilities in December 2016 in response to election interference. After a six-month delay, President Vladimir Putin responded to that move by ordering the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 employees.

As the investigation into Russia’s role in the election continues, President Trump himself has often been reluctant to criticize Russia. Just last week, he defended his call to congratulate Putin on his election victory—a gesture made against the advice of his aides and reportedly without mentioning the nerve agent attack—by saying that “getting along” with Russia is a good thing and that the Russian government “can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race.”

But despite this posture from Trump, U.S.-Russian relations have continued to deteriorate precipitously in recent months. For what it’s worth, Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, is a longtime, reflexive Russia hawk.

Trump is right about one thing: Deteriorating overall relations between the U.S. and Russia aren’t good for anyone and will make resolution of the conflicts he mentioned more difficult. But in response to Russia’s recent actions abroad—most notably what was essentially a chemical weapons attack on the soil of a U.S. ally and NATO member state—the U.S. can’t do nothing, whatever the president’s personal feelings about Putin or Russia might be. Will these latest measures actually change the Russian government’s behavior? Probably not. But what’s more significant than the expulsions themselves is the coordination involved. It’s encouraging that even in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, these allies can still get on the same page when they need to.