New Russian sanctions likely poking ourselves in the eye

Carey Cavanaugh
Carey Cavanaugh

The retaliatory measures the White House took last month against Russia, expelling 35 diplomats (later said to be “intelligence operatives”) and closing Russian diplomatic recreation sites in Maryland and New York, could harm the United States more than they hurt Russia.

Our government should respond aggressively to the unprecedented Russian cyber attacks and interference in our election process. The challenge is ensuring attempts to punish the guilty parties do not inflict collateral damage upon ourselves. Regrettably, these sanctions may do exactly that.

Russian President Vladimir Putin deftly turned the U.S. diplomatic expulsions to his advantage when he reserved Russia’s right to retaliate while refusing to engage in what he deemed “irresponsible diplomacy.” Putin declared that Moscow would not expel U.S. diplomats now, but will base its further action on the policies of the new administration.

This guarantees Donald Trump will immediately face a political minefield regarding future U.S.-Russian relations. Does he rescind President Barack Obama’s sanctions, provoking a backlash from Congress and an American public already leery of his positive approach toward Russia and its leader? Or, does he maintain them, potentially eliciting a sharp Russian response?

Diplomacy is generally based on reciprocity. If the U.S. expels 35 diplomats or intelligence officers, Russia typically expels 35. If we make life more difficult for Russian officials, they respond accordingly.

The U.S. has been down this path before.

Under President Ronald Reagan, a firestorm of tit-for-tat moves had Washington expel 80 Soviet diplomats. Moscow countered by expelling 10 U.S. diplomats and withdrawing 260 local employees from U.S. diplomatic missions.

President George W. Bush expelled 50 Russian diplomats following the arrest of an FBI official who had spied for Moscow; Russia expelled 50 U.S. diplomats the very next day.

While such eye-for-an-eye expulsions are often equal in number, the damage they cause is dissimilar. The unspoken secret is that American diplomats and intelligence officers working in Russia have greater value than their Russian counterparts working here.

First, Russian diplomatic missions often have a more significant complement of intelligence operatives, so one-for-one reductions cut unevenly. In addition, the U.S. professionals are harder to replace. The number of English-speaking Russian diplomats, for example, far exceeds the number of American Foreign Service officers who speak Russian.

The U.S. does not maintain dozens of trained, available replacements with the requisite background and skills (at all levels) ready and waiting for rapid assignment abroad. The potential immediate loss of 35 experienced and engaged U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials therefore constitutes a serious setback.

Furthermore, it is simply easier to work as a diplomat or an intelligence officer in an open, democratic, Western society like the U.S. with its free press and a traveling public. If Russia’s embassy in Washington is short-handed, Putin can still obtain a strong sense of American politics, economics and the inner workings of our government from open sources. Expelled Russian intelligence operatives may even be able to continue handling their established American contacts through clandestine meetings abroad.

Trump will not enjoy the same luxury. Russia is a hard target, made all the more difficult by the Kremlin’s tight control of the economy and the media. To fully grasp developments there, the U.S. needs its best people on the ground providing political analysis and intelligence. Their services are in higher demand.

India’s Mahatma Gandhi is credited with saying, “an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.”

In this situation, the eye-for-an-eye expulsions the United States started do not leave everyone blind — they disadvantage the U.S. more. They undermine the critical “situational awareness” that senior policymakers need to set strategy and advance goals, precisely when a new administration, seeking a new relationship, comes into power.

Trump should try to craft an approach that will preclude a reciprocal retaliation by Putin. Otherwise, our diplomatic vision and intelligence capabilities in Russia may be diminished precisely when clarity on what is happening there and how best to deal with Putin could not be more important.

Retired U.S. ambassador Carey Cavanaugh is a professor and former director of the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.