Updated Mar 29, 2018

Diplomat expulsions signal newly hawkish U.S. approach to Russia

The Seattle building that houses the Russian Consulate. Photo: Aaron Jacob / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

The Trump administration's decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle was an important expression of solidarity with the U.K., which had expelled 23 Russian diplomats in response to the nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy. More than 20 countries have now jointly responded, expelling more than 100 Russian diplomats worldwide.

What's next: Russia has vowed to retaliate, but the scope of its response remains unknown. One thing is clear: The downward spiral in relations will not abate as long as the Kremlin continues its confrontation course with the West.

This week's expulsion is the largest diplomatic retaliation against Russia in U.S. history, rivaling the Reagan administration's expulsion of 55 Soviet diplomats in 1986, to which Moscow responded by ordering 260 Soviet employees of the U.S. mission in Russia to leave their jobs. When the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats in December 2016, in response to Russia's election interference, Moscow belatedly ordered the U.S. embassy to reduce its personnel by 755 people, which primarily affected Russian nationals employed by the U.S. mission.

The Trump administration's reaction is another step in what is shaping up to be a hawkish approach to Russia. These expulsions follow the announcement on March 15 of personal sanctions against 24 Russian individuals and entities associated with the infamous St. Petersburg troll factory. They also come just as a the hardliner John Bolton prepares to enter the White House as National Security Adviser and fellow Russia hawk Mike Pompeo is expected to take over the State Department. Additional personal sanctions against Russians close to Putin are also likely in the works, as suggested by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The bottom line: Putin, now in power until 2024, has further isolated Russia with his foreign policy adventurism. This coordinated resolve sends a clear message to the Kremlin that aggression against the U.S. and its allies will no longer go unchecked. A strong Western response is long overdue, but better late than never.

Alina Polyakova is the David M. Rubenstein Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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