Why you should care
Because this feels like a game changer vis-à-vis Moscow.
This week, the United States and dozens of other countries joined the United Kingdom in expelling more than 100 Russian diplomats, in the wake of the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal. To better understand the ramifications of that decision, we turn to former CIA director and OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin.
What was your gut reaction to the expulsions?
That it’s about time we responded to a series of Russian provocations, capped by their interference in our elections. It’s not a very imaginative response, because it’s what we typically have done throughout our relationship with Russia. My belief is that this is largely the result of a number of nations reaching critical mass with their frustration with Russia. This isn’t just about the United States; it’s about more than 20 other countries. This incident in Britain tipped the balance. The idea of using a chemical weapon in a major European country alone is astonishing when you think about it. It poses the potential of doing it anywhere, and it’s a danger that any government has to worry about and take seriously.
How do you expect Russia to respond?
They will expel some of our people. Oddly, this probably plays into Putin’s tough-guy image in Russia. It helps him portray Russia as this embattled state standing in the way of reckless U.S. action around the world. To some degree, it doesn’t hurt him dramatically when some of his intelligence officers are expelled. They’ll just send in more. What may bother him is the concerted action by more than 20 countries, because he likes to be respected. That’s the main aspect of his personality — a desire for respect.
How should we understand President Trump’s decision not to condemn the poisoning while congratulating Putin for his election victory last week?
A normal president would have raised this with him in a phone call. Trump’s face is personally absent in all of this. We have to give him some credit for having endorsed this move. But my belief is the impetus for this came from professionals in our government — military, diplomatic, intelligence — working with their counterparts in Britain and elsewhere. The White House probably then faced a situation in which they would have little choice but to endorse a proposal like this. Had Trump not, the U.S. would have been isolated.
Another thing a normal president would do is say something to the country, as Reagan did in ’86 when we expelled a number of Russian intelligence officers. Reagan made a speech to the public explaining what we were doing and why, and what our attitude was toward the Soviet Union. What’s missing now is an articulation of American policy toward Russia: What are we trying to achieve, in what ways do we oppose them, what kind of relationships do we want with Russia? That can really only come from the president.
Do you buy the White House’s argument that Trump speaks softly on Russia because Putin still has cards to play?
There is some truth to that. If we hope to have any impact on the outcome of Syria’s civil war, we cannot avoid dealing with Russia. Also, we still don’t know where Trump is going to come out on the Iran nuclear agreement. That decision will come up on May 12, and if he either abrogates it or stays in it, Russia is a party to it. And on counterterrorism, generally we have to work with them. We gave Putin warning of a potential attack in St. Petersburg they were able to prevent, and they will typically alert us if they see an immediate danger to us.
What’s missing is any consensus on the nature of our relationship. People use the term “Cold War,” or “a new Cold War.” I think that’s a bad way to think about it. “Cold War” is too comforting a term for us — because we understand that in a simplistic way. And we fought against a monolithic power in the Soviet Union and defeated it. It went away. Russia is not going to go away; it’s not going to dissolve the way the Soviet Union did. And since 2012, Putin has embarked on a global policy of seeking greater influence, not just in the Middle East but in Africa and Latin America as well.
Last year, Congress passed sanctions that were far more reaching, but the White House has, at least publicly, decided not to enforce them. Why?
That’s the $64,000 question. And it’s really what all these investigations are seeking to answer. Why is it that Trump will harshly criticize members of his own party, journalists, Kim Jong Un, and never say a single harsh thing about Putin? That’s a mystery. It stokes the suspicion that he is in some way beholden to Russia. When the White House says that we don’t see all that it’s doing against Russia, that much of it is classified, that’s a fair answer. But it’s also one of those answers you can’t really judge.
OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS