Putin Retaliates: Are Trump’s Hopes of Better Relations Going Up in Smoke?

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As the New York Times put it on Monday, if Russian President Vladimir Putin thought he was buying a new era of Russian-American relations with his interference in the 2016 election, his carefully-laid plans have “backfired spectacularly.”

Last week, Congress overwhelmingly approved a new package of sanctions against the Russians; President Trump, with reservations, announced this weekend that he would sign them into law. If Putin was expecting that Trump’s campaign friendliness towards him would translate into geopolitical weakness, he has another think coming. And this week, with the announcement of retaliation, the Russian president appeared to realize that his faith was misplaced.

In an interview with a state-run news organization on Sunday, Putin said that the Russian government had grown tired of waiting for the relationship between his country and ours to improve.

“We waited for quite a long time that, perhaps, something will change for the better,” Putin said. “We held out hope that the situation would somehow change. But, judging by everything, if it changes, it will not be soon.”

Putin chose to retaliate directly against the sanctions applied by the Obama administration in December – a move he had sworn off doing in the wake of the stunning election results. He announced that the American diplomatic mission in Russia would have to reduce staff by 755 employees, taking the diplomacy outreach to a level not seen since the height of the Cold War.

“Over 1,000 employees — diplomats and technical workers — worked and continue to work today in Russia; 755 will have to stop this activity,” he said. “That is biting.”

The State Department and the U.S. ambassador to Russia both condemned the tactic as unnecessary and counterproductive.

“This is a regrettable and uncalled-for act,” said a State Department spokesperson. “We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it.”

President Trump has often expressed a desire to work more closely with Putin to forge a new relationship in the hopes that Russia can be an ally on issues like North Korea, Iran, and Syria, to say nothing of the ongoing fight against Islamic terrorism. But his hope for a reset has been stymied by the investigation into his campaign’s ties to the Kremlin and the left-wing conspiracy theory that he directly colluded with the Russians in their 2016 election meddling. Thus far, very little – if any – evidence has been offered to make those allegations stick. Nonetheless, their mere existence has handcuffed the president in that area of foreign policy.

There remains some hope that Trump will be able to work diplomatically with Putin outside the hardened boundaries of traditional foreign policy, establishment lines, but he’ll have to do so without much flexibility in the way of lifting sanctions. The new congressional bill largely prevents the White House from removing the sanctions without approval from Capitol Hill. If Trump is to truly reset this relationship, he’ll have to first convince Congress that it’s the right thing to do.