Russia on Friday responded to a tension of new US sanctions by saying it would expel ten US diplomats and take other retaliatory measures in a tense deal with Washington.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said that Moscow would add eight US officials to its sanctions list and move to close the remaining US non-governmental organizations in Russia to end what he described as their involvement in Russia’s policies.
Russia’s top diplomat said the Kremlin suggested that US Ambassador John Sullivan follow suit with his Russian counterpart and go home for consultation. Russia will also deny the US embassy the opportunity to hire staff from Russia and third countries as support staff, restrict visits by US diplomats serving short-term employment at the embassy and tighten requirements for US diplomats’ travel in the country.
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced sanctions against Russia for intervening in the 2020 US presidential election and involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies – activities Moscow has denied. The United States ordered the expulsion of ten Russian diplomats, targeted dozens of companies and people, and introduced new curbs for Russia’s ability to borrow money.
While the United States uses its power to paralyze the Russian economy, Moscow lacks the lever to respond naturally, although it could potentially harm American interests in many other ways around the world.
Lavrov called Washington’s move “absolutely unfriendly and unprovoked”, and said that while Russia could take “painful action” against US business interests in Russia, it would not be possible to do so immediately and “save them for future use.”
He warned that if Washington goes ahead to increase pressure further, Russia could ask the United States to reduce the number of embassies and consular staff from about 450 to 300. He said that Russia and the United States each have about 450 diplomats, but for Russia the number includes about 150 UN personnel he claimed should not be part of the equation.
Russia’s economic potential and its global reach are limited compared to the Soviet Union, which competed with the United States for international influence during the Cold War. Yet Russia’s nuclear arsenal and its leverage in many parts of the world make it a power Washington needs to reckon with.
Aware of this, President Joe Biden called for a reduction in tensions and kept the door open for cooperation with Russia in certain areas. Biden said he told Putin in Tuesday’s talks that he chose not to impose tougher sanctions for now and suggested meeting in a third country in the summer.
Russia’s ‘positive attitude’
Lavrov said Russia had a “positive attitude” to the summit’s offer and analyzed it, but a statement from the Foreign Ministry shortly afterwards stated that it was “studied in connection with the developing situation.”
The ministry accused Russia of wanting to avoid further escalation and engage in a “calm and professional dialogue”, but has other ways to respond if Washington tries to increase pressure.
While the new US sanctions further limited Russia’s ability to borrow money by banning US financial institutions from buying Russian government bonds directly from government institutions, they did not target the secondary market.
“It is very important that there are no sanctions against secondary debt, because it means that non-US people can buy the debt and sell it to US people,” said Tom Adshead, research director at Macro-Advisory Ltd, an analysis and consulting firm. .
Timothy Frye, a political scientist from Columbia University, noted that the Biden administration chose not to increase sanctions against the potential Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany or to go after large Russian state-controlled companies.
“It is part of the broader strategy to use sanctions but also to reach out to the Kremlin to propose talks on strategic stability and eventually a summit,” he said.
Tougher restrictions would also hurt Western companies, cause significant economic pain to the Russian people and allow Putin to gather anti-American sentiments to strengthen his regime.
Sanctioning the sanctions could eventually push Russia into a corner and provoke even more ruthless Kremlin action, such as a potential escalation in Ukraine, which has recently faced a sharp clash with Russian-backed separatists in the east and a massive Russian troop build-up across the border.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was in Paris on Friday to discuss tensions with French President Emmanuel Macron. Following a joint conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the three called on Russia to withdraw its troops from the border to ease the situation.
Zelensky welcomed a forthcoming Biden-Putin summit. “When such important countries do not speak, others suffer,” he said.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a top foreign policy expert chairing the Moscow-based Foreign and Defense Policy Council, predicted that Putin would likely accept Biden’s invitation to join next week’s call for climate change but could step in to accept the summit.
“There is no way to do any business,” Lukyanov said. “There is a mutual antipathy and a total lack of trust.”
He accused that the only practical result of the summit could be an agreement to start long and difficult talks on a replacement for the new START nuclear reduction agreement, which Russia and the United States extended in February for another five years.
Closer to Russia-China ties
Lukyanov noted that growing US pressure will push Russia and China closer in the long run.
“Closer cooperation with China on coordinating measures to keep the United States will develop faster now because the Chinese are interested in it,” he said. While Russia lacks the tools for a symmetrical response to US sanctions, “it has plenty of opportunities to stimulate change in world order,” he added.
Konstantin Kosachev, the Kremlin’s deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, said that by beating Russia with sanctions and proposing a summit at the same time, the United States was trying to take a commanding stance.
“Russia’s consent would be interpreted as a reflection of its desire to ease sanctions, so that the United States could secure a dominant position at the meeting, while our refusal to meet would be an appropriate pretext for more punitive measures,” Kosachev wrote on Facebook.
He argued that Russia should not rush to accept Biden’s summit.
“Revenge is a dish that is best served cold,” Kosachev wrote. “I think the proverb is completely adaptable to a situation where we are not talking about revenge but a proper response to aggressive action by an opponent.”
Some predicted US sanctions could deter Russia from cooperating with the United States on international crises.
“Russia’s position will grow harder in Syria, the Iranian nuclear deal and other issues,” Ivan Timofeev, program director at the Russian International Affairs Council, said in a statement. Instead of acting as a deterrent, he warned, the sanctions would “only anger Russia and make its policies even tougher.”
But despite the high tensions, Russia and the United States have shared interests in many global hotspots. For example, Moscow fears that instability may spread from Afghanistan to former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and it is interested in a political solution there.
As for Iran, Moscow also does not want to see it with nuclear weapons, despite its friendly ties with Tehran.
Lukyanov said Russia would not try to use global hot spots to harm the United States and would wait patiently to see them weaken US dominance.
“It’s not about playing the spoiler here or there,” he said. “Ongoing developments will accelerate the process of consolidating leading powers against US domination.”