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Tit for tat diplomatic expulsions by Russia and US are absurd and reckless

At a time when Washington wants to reduce tension with Moscow, these acts verge on the insane.

Official U.S. behavior towards Russia is suffering from a pretty acute case of what might charitably be called obsessive-compulsive disorder. As a result of this affliction, it has often lost touch not only with basic strategic common sense, but with the overall goals and strategy of the current U.S. administration. 

The latest manifestation of this has been the U.S. refusal to extend the visas of Russian diplomats in Washington, which this week naturally and inevitably led to a new round of tit for tat expulsions of U.S. diplomats from Moscow. As a result of an escalating cycle of retaliation in recent years, the U.S. embassy in Moscow is now the only U.S. diplomatic presence in that country, and the number of its staff is barely one tenth of its previous figure.

While being unwilling to seek any real compromises with Russia, President Biden and his team are clearly anxious to avoid new crises if possible; and there are the most obvious and sensible reasons for this desire. The administration has made meeting the challenge (whether real or imagined) from China the core of its entire global strategy. Any new confrontation with Russia would be a colossal distraction from this strategy, and would in fact be a magnificent strategic gift to Beijing.

In these strategic circumstances, the obvious course for America would be to carry out the “opening to China” of the 1970s in reverse, and aim for a grand strategic compromise with Russia that would neutralize U.S.-Russian tensions and split Moscow from Beijing. Even if such a move is beyond the vision and moral courage of U.S. leaders today, at the very least one would expect that U.S. policy would avoid all purely gratuitous and unnecessary gestures of hostility towards Russia, especially when these are absolutely bound to provoke an equal Russian response.

Yet since the Biden administration took office, efforts to defuse tension with Russia have been interspersed with episodes of insulting language, symbolic affronts and meaningless but deeply provocative statements. It is as if the U.S. establishment simply cannot control itself when it comes to jabbing at Russia.

Recent expulsions of Russian diplomats by the United States, and the “solidarity expulsions” of Russian diplomats by several NATO countries and by NATO headquarters in Brussels, are a particularly new and dangerous departure in the practice of diplomacy. Previously, the expulsion of diplomats was tied to particular concrete instances of espionage or other actions incompatible with their diplomatic status.

Russia, while (in accordance with international tradition) it has engaged in retaliatory expulsions of Western diplomats, has only initiated expulsions in response to what it has claimed have been specific instances of espionage. Increasingly however, Western states have turned expulsions into general retaliation for real or alleged Russian misbehavior, or actions of solidarity with other NATO states that have expelled Russian diplomats for spying.

The U.S. Senate has played an especially irresponsible role in this regard, with the bipartisan suggestion in October 2021 that the Biden administration expel 300 Russian diplomats if Russia did not grant more visas to U.S. diplomats. Since Russia would undoubtedly retaliate in kind, and since there are now only 120 U.S. diplomats in Moscow, it might have been a good idea if the Senators had used a pocket calculator before issuing this statement.

The Senate statement is simply the ultimate extension, or reductio ad absurdum, of U.S. and NATO policy in recent years, which has tended towards a complete breakdown of diplomatic relations with Russia — and in the case of NATO, has led to precisely this outcome. The result is to damage or eliminate precisely those lines of communication which it is essential to keep open if minor incidents are to be prevented from escalating into major and unnecessary crises.

 If these moves were part of a U.S. considered strategy, they would be deeply foolish and reckless; but at a time when the U.S. leadership actually wants to reduce tension with Moscow, they verge on the insane.

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