Nothing was more clear-cut during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign than his fervent desire to have a fresh start in relations with Russia. Time and again through 2016, the Republican candidate effusively asked why America couldn’t “get along” with Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin.
Such simplistic statements, implying that relations between two rival nuclear powers are based on a personal friendship between leaders, made American foreign policy mavens across the political spectrum wince. Trump was content to ignore the wide range of issues where Washington and Moscow are at odds—above all, Putin’s war on Ukraine and his saber-rattling in Eastern Europe.
I was one of those wincers at Trump’s shocking naïveté about the Russians, not least because I pronounced that we were in Cold War 2.0 with the Kremlin after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014—whether we wanted to be or not. The Republican nominee’s desire to placate Moscow regardless of Russian conduct did not bode well for the Trump presidency and its foreign policy.
As it turned out, I was an optimist. In the half-year since Donald Trump became our 45th president, his policies toward Putin have proven an obsequious hash. Still unable to admit the consensus of our Intelligence Community that Moscow interfered in our 2016 election—his election—Trump has kowtowed to the Kremlin strongman, including in public, to no effect except making his White House appear ridiculous.
Trump’s obvious desire to appease Moscow by returning their two spy centers in New York and Maryland that were shuttered by President Barack Obama in December in retaliation for Kremlin meddling in our election became an embarrassment among Republicans. Considering that those “dachas” functioned for decades as covert signals intelligence sites—the latter, located on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, was a particularly important SIGINT base for Moscow—that Trump wanted to hand them back to Russian intelligence raised awkward questions in Washington. Therefore, the idea died, much to Kremlin chagrin.
Above all, Putin wanted his American superfan, once in office, to lift the sanctions that Congress placed on Russia due to its aggressive war on Ukraine, which are doing real damage to Russia’s ailing economy. Sanctions relief is an obsession in Moscow these days, and most of the strange, secretive relations between Team Trump and the Kremlin during 2016 revolve around Russia’s ardent desire to escape the West’s painful sanctions regime.
That wish, too, has faltered. Last week, Congress approved continuing sanctions on Russia, and in fact increased them. This passed by overwhelming majorities—the tally was 98 to two in the Senate and 419 to three in the House—making them veto-proof. Adding insult to injury, Congress added a provison that the White House cannot lift any sanctions on Russia without approval from the Hill. Trump, thoroughly defeated and rebuked by his own party, has indicated he will sign the legislation—sheepishly, one assumes, since he really has no choice.
In response to such Congressional impudence, Putin has retaliated with unprecedented fury, de facto shuttering American diplomatic facilities in Russia. The Kremlin has ordered an astonishing cut of 755 personnel at our embassy in Moscow and our consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok by the beginning of September. This will leave 455 American diplomats in Russia, according to the Kremlin.
These numbers are mysterious, however, since there are nowhere near 755 American diplomats serving in Russia. As recently as 2013, the State Department employed 1,279 people at its missions in Russia; of those, 301 were Americans while 934 were local-hires, what Foggy Bottom calls Foreign Service Nationals. Although few Americans realize it, these FSNs (as they’re known in diplo-speak) outnumber Americans at most of our embassies around the world.
Since there aren’t 755 American diplomats to kick out of Russia, this means Moscow wants the State Department to fire the lion’s share of its FSNs in the country. The Kremlin thereby means to cripple our diplomatic operations in Russia. It bears noting that Obama’s end-of-2016 retaliation against Putin required the sending of 35 Russian diplomats—in reality, they were all spies—back home. Russia’s response involves more than twenty-fold the number of State Department employees.
To call Putin’s push-back excessive is charitable. This sends an indelible message to Washington that the Kremlin seeks no parley with America. We are now unquestionably in Cold War 2.0—and perhaps worse. After all, you only shut down the other side’s diplomatic facilities in your country when you’re in an actual war with them. None of this bodes well for peace and international harmony.
That said, the person who ought to be really worried here is Donald Trump. He was elected with clandestine Kremlin help and he regularly hoisted fulsome praise on Vladimir Putin—and now it’s all fallen apart. Only six months into his presidency, Moscow has assessed that Trump is a naif, an incompetent weakling who cannot deliver what Russia needs. He is therefore expendable.
As stereotypical Chekists, Putin and his retinue wanted chaos in America in 2016 and that surely Trump has delivered, with myriad assistance from Russia’s intelligence agencies. The mounting political crisis that the president has put himself in will eventually be his undoing, and the Kremlin is content to watch the unfolding mess in Washington consume American politics for months, perhaps years to come.
Now that Trump is expendable to Moscow, he ought to worry that leaks unflattering to him and his entourage may go public. We know that Russian hackers pillaged Republicans as well as Democrats in 2016, while only the latter have been disseminated by Kremlin fronts. Not to mention Trump’s decades of shadowy financial dealings with Russian oligarchs, which the Kremlin surely knows all about. Putin is biding his time and, right now, he’s holding most of the important cards. He may ultimately decide Trump’s political fate, which now resides in Moscow’s hands.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.