MS Risk Blog

US To Respond by 1 September To Russia’s Expulsion of Diplomats

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While the Trump administration has not yet decided how it will respond to Russia’s move to expel hundreds of American diplomats, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson disclosed last month that the administration is planning to deliver a response to Moscow by 1 September

Mr Tillerson made the announcement just a day after sitting down in the Philippines with Russia’s top diplomat. During the meeting, Mr Tillerson disclosed that he had asked “clarifying questions” about the Kremlin’s retaliation, which was announced last month following new sanctions that were based by US Congress and signed by US President Donald Trump. Fearing that President Trump might move inappropriately to ease sanctions on Russia, Congress in July passed new legislation that both added more sanctions and made it harder for the president to lift them. While both President Trump and Mr Tillerson opposed the legislation, President Trump begrudgingly singed the bill as he was faced with a likely veto override. Moscow’s response to the sanctions was to announce that it would force the US to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755 people. That move stoked confusion in Washington, given that the US is believed to have far fewer than 755 American employees in Russia. The Trump administration has now struggled to determine how the move will affect the US diplomatic presence in Russia, as well as the broader implications for the troubled relationship between the two states.

Despite the Russia’s decision, which effectively seems to have plunged the two countries even further into acrimony, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emerged from the meeting declaring a readiness for more engagement with the US on topics including North Korea, Syria and Ukraine, amongst other issues. This sentiment was further echoed by Mr Tillerson, who disclosed that the two countries had critical national security issues to discuss despite deep disagreements on some matters. Mr Tillerson further disclosed that Russia has been showing “some willingness” to start discussions about a resolution to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which has been devoid of real progress for years. That assessment came as Mr Lavrov announced that the Trump administration had committed to sending its new special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, Kur Volker, to Moscow to discuss next steps.

However several obstacles remain and are likely to impact achieving a more functional US-Russia relationship. These include the new US sanctions that have been imposed, Russia’s retaliatory move to expel American diplomats, and of course the ongoing US Justice Department investigation into Russia’s election meddling and potential Trump campaign collusion.

The Trump administration has argued that there is good reason for the US to seek a more productive relationship with Russia. Mr Tillerson has cited modest signs of progress in Syria, where the US and Russia recently brokered a ceasefire in the country’s southwestern region, as a sign that there’s fertile ground for cooperation. The Syrian ceasefire effectively reflected a return of US-Russia cooperation to lower violence there. The US had looked warily at a series of safe zones in Syria that Russia had negotiated along with Turkey and Iran – but not the US.