By Karen Deyoung ·
(c) 2017, The Washington Post ·
Aug 01, 2017 -
President Donald Trump said nothing Monday in response to Russia’s planned expulsion of hundreds of American diplomats, announced over the weekend by President Vladimir Putin.
“Right now we’re reviewing our options, and when we have something to say on it we’ll let you know,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday after Trump’s silence continued through several public appearances.
Asked when Trump would sign the bill passed last week by Congress, levying new sanctions on Russia, that precipitated the Kremlin’s move, Sanders said that “we’ll let you know when that’s going to happen.”
Whatever Trump decides to do in response, the fast-moving series of events appeared to leave the administration with no substantive Russia policy and without a clear idea of what direction to take.
It was left to Vice President Mike Pence, on a visit to NATO member Estonia, to note obliquely that “we hope for . . . better relations with Russia,” but that “recent diplomatic action by Moscow will not deter” U.S. defence of its Baltic allies against Russian “aggression.”
Putin said in a Moscow television interview late Sunday that he expected U.S.-Russia relations to worsen and that Russia may come up with other forms of sanctions retaliation.
Just as Trump did not mention Russia on Monday, Putin’s spokesman indicated that Trump was irrelevant to the Kremlin’s decision to retaliate before the new sanctions bill took effect. Passed with massive majorities in the House and Senate, “it will de facto become a law even if the U.S. president does not sign it,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow. “So there was no need to wait,” he said. “Things are pretty obvious.”
While Russia remained interested in improvements -promised by Trump during his campaign- relations for now were “far from this ideal,” Peskov said.
Putin waited a half year to respond to a decision by President Barack Obama, in the waning days of his administration, to sanction Russia with diplomatic expulsions and property seizures in retaliation for cyber-intrusions in the U.S. electoral campaign. Trump has repeatedly expressed doubts about Moscow’s culpability, and the Russians were clearly expecting a change in policy.
Russia had demanded the return of two diplomatic compounds in this country, labeled intelligence outposts by Obama, and applied for visas to send replacements for the 35 diplomats the previous administration kicked out.
But not only was no progress made on either issue, Trump’s inability to stop the new sanctions legislation apparently led Putin to recalculate.
“The Russian government, I think, has largely written off Trump as a person who can deliver,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Russia policy official during the Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations.
“But by the same token, they think there’s no benefit in truly antagonizing him, and so they’ll jolly him along for the indefinite future,” Weiss said.