Rus­sia slaps U.S. Trump won’t slap back.

The pres­i­dent’s fond­ness for Vladimir Putin is the big mys­tery of global pol­i­tics.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - Max Boot is a con­tribut­ing writer to Opin­ion and a se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. By Max Boot

On Sun­day, Vladimir Putin an­nounced that the U.S. diplo­matic mis­sion in Rus­sia would have to shed 755 mem­bers. Most of those, ad­mit­tedly, will be lo­cal sup­port staff; of roughly 1,200 peo­ple em­ployed by the U.S. gov­ern­ment in Rus­sia, 333 are U.S. cit­i­zens and 867 are for­eign na­tion­als, most likely Rus­sians. So this isn’t quite the mass ex­pul­sion of U.S. diplo­mats that was por­trayed in ini­tial news re­ports. It’s “merely” a mass lay­off of Rus­sian work­ers who will now suf­fer be­cause of the whims of their pres­i­dent. But it’s still a sub­stan­tial slap at the United States — far more se­ri­ous than Pres­i­dent Obama’s ex­pul­sion of 35 Rus­sian diplo­mats in re­tal­i­a­tion for the Krem­lin med­dling in the U.S. elec­tion.

Putin’s ac­tion is a sign that he has given up hope that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will lift sanc­tions on Rus­sians and oth­er­wise con­cil­i­ate the Krem­lin, as Michael Flynn, who would later be named and then de­posed as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor, ap­par­ently hinted to the Rus­sian am­bas­sador Sergei Kislyak be­fore the in­au­gu­ra­tion. U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions, far from im­prov­ing as Trump had promised, are in the depths of an icy freeze that is re­viv­ing talk of a new Cold War.

So far, Trump hasn’t con­ceded that dis­mal re­al­ity. His si­lence sug­gests he re­mains wed­ded to the fan­tasy that Putin is an ad­mirable leader and a po­ten­tial Amer­i­can ally in Syria and be­yond, and his long-stand­ing af­fec­tion for the Rus­sian dic­ta­tor seems to have only grown stronger af­ter the two men spent hours bond­ing with one an­other in Ham­burg.

Just imag­ine if Rosie O’Don­nell, “Crooked Hil­lary,” the “fail­ing New York Times” or one of the pres­i­dent’s other sup­posed en­e­mies had in­sulted him, how­ever slightly. He would surely have gone bal­lis­tic on Twit­ter by now. But there is not a word about Rus­sia or Putin in Trump’s Twit­ter feed, nor in his pub­lic com­ments, save for his rit­u­al­is­tic (and in­creas­ingly un­con­vinc­ing) de­nials of any col­lu­sion be­tween his cam­paign and Rus­sia in the elec­tion.

The only of­fi­cial U.S. re­sponse to Putin’s act was a per­func­tory State De­part­ment state­ment say­ing the ex­pul­sion was “re­gret­table and un­called for.” Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence is talk­ing tough on Rus­sia while in Es­to­nia, but Trump con­tin­ues his streak of never speak­ing ill of Putin, a streak all the more re­mark­able given how many other peo­ple Trump rou­tinely dis­par­ages. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, a re­cip­i­ent of the Or­der of Friend­ship from Putin, also has been thun­der­ously silent about this un­war­ranted af­front to the de­part­ment he leads.

Trump, to be sure, has agreed to sign a bill im­pos­ing fur­ther sanc­tions on Rus­sia but only be­cause he had no choice — it passed both houses by veto-proof mar­gins. The leg­is­la­tion re­moves pres­i­den­tial dis­cre­tion to lift sanc­tions, an ex­tra­or­di­nary re­pu­di­a­tion that in­di­cates how wor­ried law­mak­ers of both par­ties are about this pres­i­dent’s fond­ness for Rus­sia’s dic­ta­tor. Trump dragged his feet as much as pos­si­ble and tried to wa­ter down the leg­is­la­tion, but con­trary to White House claims, he did not man­age to sub­stan­tially al­ter the bill. Putin went ahead with his re­tal­i­a­tion once the Se­nate and the House re­jected ad­min­is­tra­tion en­treaties to go easy on Rus­sia.

Now the ques­tion is whether the ad­min­is­tra­tion will do any­thing at all to re­spond to Putin’s en­forced down­siz­ing of the U.S. mis­sion in Rus­sia. If Trump were so in­clined, there is much he could do, from slow­ing down the is­suance of visas to Rus­sians who want to visit the U.S., to freez­ing the bank ac­counts of Putin and his oli­garch friends (it would be poetic jus­tice to freeze 755 ac­counts), to adopt­ing a Pen­ta­gon pro­posal to ship anti-tank mis­siles and other po­tent weaponry to the Ukrainian armed forces re­sist­ing Rus­sian ag­gres­sion.

Will Trump do any of this? Doubt­ful. The only anti-Rus­sian mea­sures he has taken are those that have been forced on him by Congress. The ad­min­is­tra­tion isn’t hes­i­tat­ing to im­pose per­sonal sanc­tions on the dic­ta­tor of Venezuela, just the dic­ta­tor of Rus­sia.

Trump’s fond­ness for Putin is the big mys­tery of global pol­i­tics. Per­haps Trump sim­ply ad­mires the Rus­sian strong­man, or per­haps the Steele Dossier, com­piled by a for­mer Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, is ac­cu­rate and Putin has some­thing on Trump. What­ever the case, Trump’s un­will­ing­ness to get tough with Rus­sia saps his cred­i­bil­ity, strength­ens sus­pi­cions of col­lu­sion with the Krem­lin, wor­ries our East­ern Euro­pean al­lies and un­der­mines Amer­ica’s stand­ing in the world. That is a high price to pay for try­ing to re­main in the good graces of an anti-Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor.

Olga Malt­seva AFP/Getty Im­ages

THE U.S. CON­SULATE in St. Petersburg. The U.S. has been or­dered to cut 755 diplo­matic staffers in Rus­sia.

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