Photo Credit: Aaron Siirila

President Donald Trump’s decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats the U.S. believes to be working as intelligence officers and shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle, marks the strongest action the Trump Administration has taken against Moscow yet. The move was part of a coordinated response by more than twenty countries to Russia’s use of a military-grade nerve gas to poison former spy, Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England March 4th. Britain considers the attack, “an unlawful use of force” against the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May said recently.

Western nations fear that the attack represents a newly strident Russia willing to openly flaunt international norms. In a statement, the White House called it “the latest in [Russia’s] ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world.”

Moscow’s Miscalculation

The Kremlin likely assumed that Britain’s government, distracted by Brexit, would be unlikely to forcefully respond and President Donald Trump’s previous reluctance to criticize Moscow would minimize the risk of U.S. countermeasures as well. As it turns out, they miscalculated.

To date, 21 countries have expelled a total of 135 diplomats in what Prime Minister May says is the “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.”

The broader and more important effect was symbolic — a strong demonstration that the transatlantic alliance, which Russia has sought to disrupt, is alive and well.

The move diminishes Russian intelligence operations in U.S. and Europe to some extent. The broader and more important effect was symbolic — a strong demonstration that the transatlantic alliance, which Russia has sought to disrupt, is alive and well. “If the Kremlin’s goal is to divide and intimidate the western alliance, then their efforts have spectacularly backfired,” the prime minister told the House of Commons Monday.

Why It Matters

Skripel’s murder was a slap in the face not only to Britain, but to the United States as well.  Skripel, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, was convicted of spying for Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence agency in 2006. He ended up in Britain as part of a U.S.-brokered spy swap in 2010. Skripel, who was pardoned by then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and three other spies were handed over in exchange for ten Russian spies arrested by the FBI. Russia’s attack on Skripel was an afront to the deal struck between the U.S. and Russia.

What Happens Next?

Russia is downplaying the significance of the expulsions, and will likely retaliate in kind. The Russian embassy posted a poll on Twitter asking which U.S. consulate in Russia they should close. St. Petersburg is winning.

But, whatever measures Russia takes, the coordinated response has rejuvenated the western alliance against an increasingly aggressive Russia. That is an important and positive development. Still, the new cold war between Russia and the west just got a little hotter.

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