Vladimir Putin's decision to reduce the American diplomatic presence in Russia in the wake of sanctions passed by Congress is raising comparisons to similar tit-for-tat moves during the Cold War in the 1980s. In early coverage, two themes are emerging: Putin miscalculated on his US strategy, at least with Congress, and these diplomatic expulsions are relatively tame:
- The numbers: Some initial confusion greeted Putin's initial statement. He's not expelling 755 US diplomats—the US has nowhere near that number in Russia. Instead, he's reducing the American embassy and consulate staff by 755 people, reports the AP. And probably about half are local hires doing relatively low-profile administrative work. The cuts will bring the US staff to 455, the same as the Russian staff in the US.
- Verb choice: The confusion stemmed from Putin's use of a Russian verb that means "pack up," leading to conclusions that these were all expulsions, notes the Los Angeles Times.
- Backfire: A New York Times analysis asserts that Putin's bet on better relations with the US under President Trump has "backfired, spectacularly." Relations between the two leaders seem cordial, but Congress is clearly not ready to forgive and forget, meaning "Trump's hands are now tied in dealing with Moscow, probably for years to come," writes David Sanger.
- Ditto: "Russia perhaps failed to understand the Congressional hostility to its activities, mistaking the Trump insiders' lack of concern for the predominant view of the president's supporters on Capitol Hill," writes Jonathan Marcus at the BBC.
- Maybe not so bad? Analysts in a separate New York Times story note that Putin acted after Congress passed the sanctions but before Trump signed them, signaling it's not a move directed at the US president. They also note that staff reductions are, in the grand scheme, relatively harmless, suggesting Putin isn't giving up on better ties.
- 'Restrained': An op-ed in the Moscow Times by Vladimir Frolov calls the Russian move "relatively restrained," but warns things could get nastier. If Putin loses all hope Trump can deliver on "grand bargains," he might start exploiting "geopolitical opportunities" in Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, and elsewhere and ramp up tensions even higher.
- VP Mike Pence: He's currently on a three-day trip to meet with Baltic leaders to assure them the US will back them up if Russia makes aggressive moves on the border or through cyberattacks, reports the Wall Street Journal. He meets with the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia on Monday.
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