Trump set to tighten screws on Putin

Several European countries are expected to announce their own expulsions of Russian diplomats in concert with the US


WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump is poised to take his most aggressive actions yet against Russia today, when he’s likely to announce the expulsion of dozens of diplomats in response to the nerve-gas attack on a former Russian spy living in the UK.

The move, all but certain to provoke retaliation by President Vladimir Putin’s government, comes as Trump has tried to maintain at least the semblance of a constructive relationship with the Russian leader.

But the expulsions will align Trump with European allies who feel threatened by Russia and have had a turbulent relationship with the US president, including UK Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Several European countries are expected to announce their own expulsions of Russian diplomats in concert with the US.

While US policy toward Russia has gradually grown more strident in recent months, the president’s critics say he has been slow to respond to Putin’s provocations. Some have drawn a connection to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian government, as well as Trump’s past business relationships with Russian figures.

‘Good Thing’
Trump has denied any campaign collusion and as recently as last Wednesday advocated for an amicable relationship with Russia. “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he said on Twitter.

The US considers the diplomats it plans to expel to be spies, carrying out intelligence activities undercover as embassy staff, one person familiar with the matter said. Trump’s action would follow a similar move by May, who ordered 23 Russians that she said were spies to leave Britain over the attack on the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter.

“The US stands firmly with the UK in condemning Russia’s outrageous act ion,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said in a statement on Saturday. “The president is always considering options to hold Russia accountable in response to its malign activities.”

But Putin has proven expert at exploiting even the slightest divisions among Western allies, and Trump is concerned that European capitals may not follow through on promises to tighten the screws on the Kremlin. The president regards Germany, in particular, as wobbly because of its dependence on Russian fuel supplies.

NSC Recommendations
Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) reached recommendations for a US response to the UK attack at a meeting last Wednesday and presented the proposals to him last Friday.

Trump discussed the issue that day with US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, FBI Director Chris Wray, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Defence Secretary James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, outgoing National Security Advisor HR McMaster and others, two people familiar with the talks said.

All of the people who discussed the president’s deliberations asked not to be identified.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.

A division within the White House over how to confront Putin flared last week after Trump called Putin last Tuesday and congratulated him for winning an election regarded in the West as largely fraudulent.

The praise drew criticism from Congress and ran contrary to written talking points for the call that advised Trump not to congratulate the Russian leader, a person familiar with the matter said. Trump didn’t read the guidance.

Trump, meanwhile, has reshaped his national security staff. Last Thursday, he announced he would replace McMaster, who favoured a tougher public posture toward Putin, with John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations who has promoted military action against Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

That move came just a week after the president fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had also adopted a more confrontational stance toward Russia, and nominated Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, to replace him.

Congress has pressured Trump to get tougher on Putin and passed legislation in August giving lawmakers the power to block the president from lifting punitive US measures imposed after Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Substantively, Washington’s policy toward Russia has become tougher in recent months, though Trump’s critics say he has dragged his feet in responding to Putin’s provocations.