Politics·Analysis

'The Kremlin has to be confused': U.S. expels Russians despite Trump's warm words for Putin

The White House is continuing to punish Russia by imposing trade sanctions and, this week, expelling diplomats. But what's missing so far is any explicit condemnation from U.S. President Donald Trump himself.

Trump congratulated Putin on his election win six days before the U.S. ordered Russian diplomats out

Officials in Russia are probably 'scratching their heads' over U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin on his election win, then expel Russian diplomats six days later, according to one analyst. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin)

In the wake of a suspected nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain, the White House is taking action. All that's missing are words from the U.S. president.

The Trump administration announced Monday it would be expelling 60 Russian diplomats, which officials called "intelligence officers," as part of a co-ordinated Western response to the nerve-agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Julia, in Salisbury, England. The statement came from the White House press office, but not U.S. President Donald Trump himself.

As the White House continues punishing Russia — imposing a fresh round of sanctions last week and expelling diplomats this week — the diplomatic action is so far lacking any explicit condemnation of Putin from Trump himself. White House officials say Trump personally ordered the diplomats out. But he hasn't made any expressly anti-Russian remarks.

On the expulsions list this week are 48 Russian embassy staff and 12 diplomats from the United Nations. The U.S. will also close Moscow's diplomatic outpost in Seattle. That's a start, said Brett Bruen, a former White House director of global engagement who led an inter-agency task force to combat Russian propaganda.

Failure to act at all would have been treated as a "green light" for the Kremlin to continue, he said. "This — simply putting diplomats and spies on a plane — will be treated as a yellow light."

That is to say, it might be regarded as a standard response from the U.S. and European allies putting the Russians on notice and possibly slowing some bad behaviour, Bruen said, but probably not an action that will "significantly deter" Putin.

Words matter when it comes to the U.S. president, given his unrestrained personality and unfiltered Twitter stream.

Earlier this month, Trump equivocated on calling out Russia for the nerve-agent attack, saying that the U.S. would condemn Moscow, or "whoever it may be," for the poisonings.

"It carries a lot of weight when the president speaks," Bruen said. "Can you imagine if [former president] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in lieu of his statement after the attack on Pearl Harbor, had his press secretary issue a statement?"

It's an extreme example, of course, but Bruen's point is that any adversaries watching should have no questions about the president's position.

Russia is widely expected to expel U.S. diplomats in response to the White House's decision. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

For Republican strategist Evan Siegfried, Trump's presidency is also bending an old adage that actions speak louder than words. Ordinarily, it would be enough for any president to impose expulsions or sanctions.

But these are extraordinary times "given Trump's prior history, his tweeting glowingly about Putin, always speaking about him in positive terms, and casting doubt" on Russian misconduct, he said.

"Words do matter. Words send signals, and he's got to disassociate himself from Putin … with his fawning comments, and acknowledge that," Siegfried said.

This recent punitive action could be jarring, says former U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs Karl Inderfurth, who spent two years living in Moscow. He noted it was just last week that Trump had a well-wishing phone call with Putin.

"The Kremlin has to be confused," Inderfurth said.

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, were victims of an apparent nerve-agent attack earlier this month. Trump stopped short of calling out Russia as the perpetrator, saying that the U.S. would condemn Moscow, or 'whoever it may be.' (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office last week that he congratulated Putin on his re-election — a comment that the president's aides reportedly warned him not to make. During their talk, Trump reportedly ignored briefing notes urging him to put Putin on notice about the Salisbury attack.

The order to expel the 60 Russian diplomats came only six days later.

"They're probably scratching their heads in Moscow because of these conflicting signals," Inderfurth said. "They will probably also take note of a new national security advisor arriving on the scene with a very hardline approach."

Trump's appointment of the former ambassador to the UN John Bolton should at least give Putin pause. In 2016, Bolton brushed off Obama-era expulsions of Russian diplomats, saying it wouldn't do enough to "make the Russians feel pain."

Republican strategist Evan Siegfried said that given Trump's previously positive comments about Putin and Russia, it's key that he speak out about the Salisbury attack. 'Words do matter. Words send signals, and he's got to disassociate himself from Putin.' (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Former senior CIA analyst Mark Lowenthal found rare agreement with Bolton on that point. He doubts that Trump directed the expulsions, crediting his advisors, but he also feels that removing diplomats does little other than send a signal.

"The message is, 'We know you did this, we're not interested in your denials, stop doing it,'" Lowenthal said.

Russia is expected to respond in kind.

Bruen dismisses the expulsion of Russians as "20th-century diplomacy," arguing that dealing pain to Putin begins with "asymmetric engagement" to expose corruption in the Kremlin and the Russian oligarchy.

"We need to disrupt, delay and damage their capability to carry out chemical attacks," he said.

Alexandra Vacroux, executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, said the Russians are likely still wondering about what influence Trump wields in his own White House.

"There's no doubt he has been completely ineffective in making good relationships with Russians happen," she said. "I don't know how important it is for him to say something or not, if they don't know how to assess the weight of what he says."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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