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Scores of Russians Expelled by U.S. and Its Allies Over U.K. Poisoning
President Trump ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian officials on Monday, joining a coordinated campaign by two dozen countries to retaliate for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain in a Cold War-style escalation that again highlighted the disparity between the president's words and actions.
The mass expulsion of Russian personnel stationed in the United States was the largest ever, eclipsing even the darkest days of the global showdown with the Soviet Union. But Mr. Trump avoided any public condemnation of Russia's role in the attack just days after phoning President Vladimir V. Putin to congratulate him on a re-election widely considered a sham.
In approving the expulsions and ordering the closure of the Russian Consulate in Seattle, Mr. Trump followed the lead of Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, who rallied a multinational coalition to respond to the poisoning. With London pressing for action, Mr. Trump called foreign counterparts to see if they would join, too. Aides said he encouraged them to take part, but he also knew that failure to go along would have left the United States isolated.
In addition to the United States, at least 22 other nations backed Britain by expelling about 57 more Russian diplomats and intelligence officers as of Monday evening, including France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Poland and Canada. Mrs. May originally expelled 23 Russians shortly after British authorities determined that Moscow was likely responsible for the nerve agent that left Sergei V. Skripal, the former Russian spy, and his daughter in a coma.
The joint action intensified the conflict between Russia and the West that has accelerated since Moscow's annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and its clandestine effort to influence the American presidential election in 2016. Based on past practice, Russia will almost certainly retaliate by kicking out western diplomats, echoing the tit-for-tat confrontations of the Cold War.
The expulsions brought into focus the disconnect between aggressive actions taken against the Kremlin by the Trump administration and the president's public eagerness to have a cooperative relationship with Mr. Putin. Mr. Trump has staunchly resisted criticizing the Russian president, even as he imposed sanctions on a series of Russian organizations and individuals for interference in the 2016 presidential election and what the administration called other "malicious cyberattacks."
Mr. Trump, who energetically comments on almost any other subject on Twitter or in encounters with reporters, stayed conspicuously silent on the showdown with Russia on Monday, leaving it to aides to explain his decision.
"The only real conclusion to draw is there is something of a divide," said Thomas Wright, the director of the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe. "They may have convinced him to sign off, but he doesn't want to be the face of it. He could have resolved this any day with a 10-minute appearance. That's the part that's puzzling to me."
Michael Anton, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Mr. Trump deserved credit for organizing the joint response and expressed frustration at the perception that the president had not been firm enough with Russia.
"No matter what we do, it's like, 'You guys are soft on Russia,'" he said. "What do we have to do to show that we're tough? We just coordinated a 22-nation action and kicked out 60 Russians."
Mr. Anton said the president did not publicly excoriate Russia for its actions because he wanted to maintain a constructive relationship at the level of the countries' leaders. "Happy talk on one phone call is better than belligerent talk on one phone call," he said.
Speaking from the White House lectern on Monday, Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, called the poisoning attack "brazen" and "reckless," and said that it impeded Mr. Trump's continued desire to foster a constructive relationship with the Russians.
"We want to have a cooperative relationship," Mr. Shah said. "The president wants to work with the Russians, but their actions sometimes don't allow that to happen."
Indeed, aides were intent on describing a president who was keenly aware of Russian misbehavior. One official, who was not authorized to publicly describe the president's private conversations, said Mr. Trump sounded aggressive about Moscow during a discussion with advisers in the Oval Office on Friday, calling Russia's actions of late "dangerous."
The American expulsion order was designed to root out Russians actively engaging in intelligence operations against the country, White House officials said. Those expelled included 12 people identified as Russian intelligence officers who have been stationed at the United Nations in New York, and 48 operating under the Russian Embassy in Washington. The Russians and their families have seven days to leave the United States, according to officials. American officials estimate that there are more than 100 Russian intelligence officers in the United States.
The Trump administration also announced that it would close the Russian Consulate in Seattle because of its proximity to Naval Base Kitsap, one of two American naval bases that house a fleet of nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarines.
Mr. Shah said the president took a proactive role in speaking with foreign leaders and encouraging others to join the efforts. White House officials who described the expulsion order said it had coordinated with about a dozen American allies. A British official said London's diplomats, military officers and intelligence officials had spoken with their American counterparts on a daily, even hourly, basis since the attack on Mr. Skripal.
The Kremlin has maintained that it had nothing to do with the poisoning. In a statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday, officials accused British authorities of "a prejudiced, biased as well as hypocritical stance" in carrying out the expulsions, and castigated European Union and NATO member countries for following suit.
"It goes without saying that this unfriendly move by this group of countries will not go unnoticed, and we will respond to it," the statement read.
Current and former diplomats said the real test of the expulsions would be if they served to deter Russia from further intervention in other countries.
"The key question for me is whether all this – and whatever else is to follow – will finally persuade Putin that the cost of killing off enemies and 'traitors' and subverting other people's societies in order to 'make Russia great again' just isn't worth it," said Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States. "That would be a great prize for the free world, and for British diplomacy."
Poland has positioned itself to take a lead role in coordinating a response from the Eastern European nations traditionally most wary of their giant neighbor to the east. Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz called the incident in Britain an "unprecedented attack on civilians with the use of chemical weapon, unseen in Europe since World War II."
The expulsion of Russian diplomats was an unprecedented move by Warsaw, the first time it has taken diplomatic action against its neighbor because of Russian behavior outside of Poland.
Germany's move not only signaled solidarity with London, but also suggested the incoming foreign minister, Heiko Maas, may be more hawkish toward Moscow than his predecessor.
"The attack in Salisbury shook us all in the European Union," Mr. Maas said. "For the first time since the end of World War II, a chemical war agent was used in the middle of Europe."
Mr. Maas said Germany did not take the decision "flippantly."
"But the fact and indications point to Russia. The Russian government has so far not answered any of the open questions and has shown no readiness to play a constructive role in solving this attack," he said.
Mr. Trump's decision to join a united front against Russia came amid a personnel churn in the White House as numerous aides, including his national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, have said they will leave the administration. Last month, Mr. McMaster called evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election "incontrovertible."
His words angered the president, who remains anxious over the continued investigation into his campaign's contact with Russian officials. Mr. Trump publicly rebuked General McMaster on Twitter for forgetting "to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems," referring to his Democratic election opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The harsher stance on Russia will also prove to be an early test of the ideological compatibility of the president's newly revamped national security team. Last week, Mr. Trump announced that he would replace General McMaster with John R. Bolton, long a vocal critic of Mr. Putin who has called Russian interference in the 2016 election "a true act of war." Mike Pompeo, the nominee for secretary of state, has been quieter with his criticisms.
And then there is the president himself, whose public declarations have repeatedly found themselves in conflict with the policy decisions rolled out in his White House. Brian McKeon, who served as a chief of staff of the national security counsel under President Barack Obama, said the staff disruptions were sure to play out if the Trump administration was considering taking further action against Russia.
"Bolton's worldview is that there should be more" measures, including sanctions, Mr. McKeon said. "I don't think that's the president's view."
[Source: By Katie Rogers and Peter Baker, The New York Times, Washington, 26Mar18]
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