By Robert Harneis –TDO- (France) One of Obama’s final actions before leaving office, was the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats on the 29th of December 2016, as well as the confiscation of two Russian owned compounds, one in Maryland, one in Upstate New York. Obama’s aim was to tie Trump’s hand and impede any meaningful improvement in US-Russian relations. His excuse was the frankly frivolous claim that the Russian government had interfered in the US presidential elections. At that time, Putin did not respond saying he wanted to see if things would get better under Trump and it looked as if he was lagging behind events. He faced considerable criticism inside Russia for being soft on the Americans.
Now, using the Congressional Bill imposing new sanctions on Russia as a justification, he has delivered his delayed reaction. On a trivial level, two US facilities in Russia will be confiscated in an exact replica of the original American démarche. But it is his counter measure on diplomatic representation which has sent shock waves through the world diplomatic community. Instead of expelling 35 US diplomats from Russia he has capped the total US representation to around 450. This means that some 755 US diplomats and local Russian staff will have to go. The Russian logic is impeccable, they have demanded that the US reduce its representation throughout Russia to the same number as the Russian representation in the United States. And yet to go from a figure of 35 to 755 is a massive escalation.
Evidence that the United States government was stunned by this coup was the almost complete silence on the subject from the vast majority of US and western allied main stream media for some 48 hours.
To call it a coup is no exaggeration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 the United States increased its diplomatic representation in Russia to more than double the Russian total in the US. It requires little imagination to believe that a newly revived Russian government has been less than happy with this state of affairs, particularly given the well-known American penchant for using their diplomats to generate dissent and disrupt elections, if not actual rebellion, worldwide, always for the noblest of reasons – human rights, LGBT rights and democracy building of course. Equally it is clear that the Russians would not have wanted to take the initiative in clearing out a mass of American diplomats without very good reason. The members of Congress who voted overwhelmingly for the new sanctions have given Putin his perfect excuse to act and to act in a timely manner. Putin is no doubt more than happy to have far fewer US ‘diplomats’ buzzing around during the Russian elections in March 1918 and the football World Cup to be held in Russia in June of July of the same year.
The advantage to the Russians does not stop at equality of numbers. Because they have made it plain that equality of representation is the new norm, the new base line for diplomatic action. They have killed two birds with one stone, both avenging the Obama insult and rectifying a diplomatic imbalance that has troubled them for some time. Therefore, if the Americans decide to up the ante and expel more Russian diplomats, then the Russians are in a position to expel more Americans ad infinitum. Bearing in mind the hostile attitude of the United States to Russia at the moment, from a Russian point of view, the fewer US ‘diplomats’ in Russia the better.
All of which leaves the Russians still sitting on their hands completely free to react to the latest US economic sanctions in any way and at any time they chose, probably as Putin has said ‘asymmetrically’. They will also be quietly enjoying the fury the sanctions have generated in Europe and particularly in Germany, where German companies have increased their trade with Russia 20% in the last year despite the existing sanctions. Germany is also less than impressed by the blatant attempt to bully western Europe into buying expensive LNG gas from America rather than cheap Russian gas from across the Baltic via Nord stream 2.
As Russia expert Professor Richard Sakwa put it in a recent interview, ‘This is going back to the 1980's when the Reagan administration tried to stop the building of the Soviet Yamal gas pipelines to Western Europe in the first place. Then, they proposed quite severe sanctions, but the Germans, French and others refused to accept it. Now, … this is going to drive a wedge between Europeans and the United States.’
So, are the American legislators just bulls in a china shop intent on domestic politics only and unaware of the consequences of their actions, as many suggest? With all due respect to Professor Sakwa, perhaps not. It is worth bearing in mind that the Western Europeans have weaknesses that they did not have in the 1980s and which this time round may make them bend the knee at least temporarily to calculated US bullying.
First, with the end of the Cold War the US has less real need of military allies in Western Europe. The thirty NATO bases in Germany and others elsewhere look more and more like occupation rather than protection every year. Why for example is United States Africa Command (Africom) in Stuttgart of all places?
Second, by expanding the European Union into Eastern Europe, the original members of the EU have created a built in US lobby within the Union, particularly the Baltic States and Poland, that influences EU policy against Russia and in favor of the US. It is noticeable that the objections to the new sanctions are less strenuous from Brussels than from Berlin. The Commission has to take account of the views of all its members… especially when they are backed by Washington.
Third, Germany and France are in a weaker financial position vis a vis the United States than they were in the 1980s. With globalization and the universal reserve Dollar, the US has spun an international legal web in which to trap any foreign company that displeases them. At the same time, the western economies have not yet recovered from the 2008 financial crash with debt to GDP ratios of 90% and still groggy banks. On top of that France and Germany have a healthy favorable trade balance with the US of 15 billion and 64 billion respectively. Any trade war between the parties will therefore tend to hurt them in a way they can ill afford.
Finally, there is no doubt that the US campaign for political influence over its western allies since the 1980S has gained a lot of ground on a personal level. Much of the Western political class have been educated by stick and carrot to just doing what Uncle Sam says, certainly more so than their predecessors, like Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schroeder or François Mitterrand. The angry outbursts from German politicians against the new sanctions have a lot to do with the upcoming elections in September. It remains to be seen if the present incumbents, Merkel and Macron really have the courage required to defy their American allies. Nothing could be less sure.
If, as may well be the case, the Western Europeans are no longer capable of defying the United States, the precedent the Russians have set will still worry the US State Department. What if every country in the world started to demand reciprocal diplomatic rights with the United States? Iraq, for instance, has recently begun to show signs of independence after the recapture of Mosul. America has a self-contained, fortified Embassy in Baghdad covering 42 hectares employing thousands with all the usual trimmings, fitness center, Olympic pool and six tennis courts, that cost nearly a billion pounds to build. Compare this with the modest if pleasant establishment that Iraq keeps in Washington.
Putin has played his cards with considerable skill. He now has the initiative and It will be interesting to see what he does next to counter the sanctions. His shock ejection of hundreds of US diplomats and Russian auxiliaries is all about responding to Obama’s December 2016 provocation. Sanctions are now a mere nuisance and in some ways actually beneficial to the Russian economy. Whatever he does, it will be carefully thought out and calculated solely to improve Russia’s diplomatic and economic position, rather than any mindless tit for tat reaction.