A show of unity against Russia
In an unprecedented rebuke to Moscow over a chemical-weapon attack on a former spy in Britain, the Trump administration this week joined more than two dozen other Western nations in ordering a mass expulsion of Russian diplomats and spies. The U.S. expelled 60 Russian nationals; overall, more than 150 envoys were sent home to Moscow from 28 countries, in what British Prime Minister Theresa May hailed as the “largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.” NATO joined the response, removing seven Russian diplomats from its Belgium headquarters; the Trump administration also announced the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, saying it was used to spy on a nearby U.S. naval base. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the expulsions send “a clear message to Russia that there are costs and consequences for its unacceptable and dangerous pattern of behavior.” President Trump, however, did not comment on the expulsions or the chemical attack, and his spokesman said he “still wants to work with Russia.”
The diplomatic blitzkrieg came three weeks after former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned in the sleepy English town of Salisbury. Neither is expected to survive. British officials identified the poison as Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent, and concluded that Russia’s involvement was the “only plausible explanation.” Moscow denied that charge. Russia is expected to kick out Western diplomats in response to this week’s expulsions, which Russia’s foreign ministry said would “not pass unnoticed.”
What the editorials said
This purge of intelligence officers posing as diplomats was a necessary response to Russia’s “latest audacious act of aggression,” said The Washington Post. But the expulsions don’t affect Putin’s “power base,” so the Russian strongman will “probably shrug them off.” To really force a change of thinking in Moscow, London and Washington need to target the oligarchs and government officials who buttress Putin’s power. The West should punish his corrupt cronies with asset freezes and visa bans.
Trump’s posture toward Putin has been dangerously “inconsistent and weak,” said the Washington Examiner. While his administration has taken a tough rhetorical and policy stance toward Russia, including providing “advanced weapons” to Ukrainian forces battling Russian insurgents, Trump has been “excessively deferential to Putin personally.” Last week he defied his aides’ instructions not to congratulate the Russian strongman on his sham election victory; he has been curiously silent about the Skripal nerve-gas attack. It’s fine for the president to try to “build a more effective relationship” with Putin—as long as those efforts are “coupled to a clear-eyed recognition of the Russian leader’s malign intentions and actions.”
What the columnists said
The real power of these mass expulsions is that they were the result of “a single, unified policy decision” by so many Western nations, said Joshua Yaffa in NewYorker.com. Putin’s “overarching goal” in recent years has been to split and weaken Western institutions such as the EU and NATO—that’s why he “welcomed Brexit,” and was initially “buoyed” by Trump’s divisive election win. These mass expulsions are symbolically important, indicating that “the notion of Western security cooperation may yet have some steam left in it.”
I’m not so sure, said Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg.com. Ten EU members, including Austria, Greece, and Portugal, refused to join the expulsion bandwagon. Most of the countries that did sign up kicked out only one or two diplomats—a “token gesture” at best. Ultimately, “European leaders are a pragmatic bunch.” Heavily reliant on Russia for oil, gas, and trade, they’d rather not “escalate tensions” with Moscow.
Nonetheless, Putin’s strategy of “plausible deniability” appears to have “reached its limits,” said Kadri Liik in The New York Times. The Russian strongman perfected the art of using proxies to do his belligerent dirty work, most notably the “little green men” who invaded Crimea on Russia’s behalf in 2014. With “the Kremlin’s hands clean”—technically, at least—the West struggled to respond forcefully. But not anymore. With this joint show of anger over a hideous attack on a NATO ally’s soil, the U.S. and its allies have made it clear that when bad things happen that align with the Kremlin’s interests, they will view Putin as “guilty until proven innocent.”
Illustration by Fred Harper.
On the cover: Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Naomi Wadler, Wayne LaPierre.
Cover photos from Newscom (2), AP