Last week, following the brazen attempt by Russia to assassinate one of its former spies and his daughter in Britain with a chemical weapon, 27 countries expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats. Moscow swiftly and predictably reciprocated, announcing that it would expel 60 American diplomats.
Is this the end of President Trump’s illusion about a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the beginning of a sober, long-term strategy?
Mr. Putin has prided himself on playing a strong game with weak cards. He sees plenty of opportunities to hobble his adversaries abroad and further cement his position at home. That requires engaging in an asymmetric game — relying on dark arts to make inroads in a brutish world, exploiting the vulnerabilities of open societies while highlighting the benefits of his closed one.
Mr. Putin has steadily refined that playbook. He has had the advantage of testing it where he had the greater interest, most prominently in Ukraine. The attack on the former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, is another classic if grotesque play. It’s a not-so-subtle message to Mr. Putin’s political opponents that dissent has its costs. It also tells his rivals in the West that he has every intention to kick them while they’re down — and get away with it.
By meddling in the internal affairs and democratic fabric of America and its allies over the past couple of years, Mr. Putin has overplayed his hand. He is risk-tolerant to the point of recklessness, and he has picked a fight where the West has far more at stake than he does.
Mr. Putin is likely surprised, but not fazed, by the breadth of the world’s collective response to the Skripal incident. He can overcome the inconvenience of losing intelligence operatives. He is also betting that divisions in the West will mean that these actions are the end, not the beginning, of a response.
It’s critical that Mr. Putin lose that bet. That is not a call for self-indulgent chest-thumping or blind confrontation. Mr. Putin’s broadly adversarial calculus cannot be reversed, but it can be altered in meaningful ways with coordinated pressure. That’s where diplomacy comes in.
Mr. Putin’s muscular revanchism can camouflage his weakness, but it cannot erase it. He remains reliant on a one-dimensional economy, constrained by sanctions, mired in the reckless adventures he’s pursued in Ukraine and Syria, and increasingly subordinate to China and its growing ambitions. An effective diplomatic response needs to expose Mr. Putin’s vulnerabilities as effectively as he has sought to exploit ours.
His biggest vulnerability is his diplomatic loneliness. He has nothing close to the web of alliances and partnerships that have anchored the United States and its partners. While it’s almost always slower, harder and less satisfying to work in coalitions, the policy effects are almost always more long-lasting and effective. It’s critical to work with our allies and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to establish a clear baseline to forcefully counter Mr. Putin’s unserious denials of culpability.
We have demonstrated our ability to work in concert on painful sanctions after Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Now it’s time to tighten those screws further, fully apply the sanctions passed by Congress last summer, and work closely with our partners to follow suit. We all need to reduce our vulnerabilities to Russia’s meddling, and deny impunity to those aiding and abetting those efforts.
The project of making Russia great is part and parcel of making Mr. Putin and his crony capitalist friends rich. That is also a vulnerability. Too many countries for too long have facilitated the enrichment and corruption of Mr. Putin’s inner circle. That needs to end.
The logical next step after the diplomatic expulsions is a similarly coordinated campaign to hit the wallets of the Kremlin elite. That won’t be easy or pain-free for a number of economies, including our own. A strong signal that business as usual is over will unsettle Moscow and stimulate concerns about what more drastic steps might follow. Mr. Putin knows that the longer he is denied foreign direct investment, the further behind his economy will fall.
There is some risk of a more forceful response to Mr. Putin’s aggression. We need to be vigilant not to prompt an unprovoked escalation in Ukraine or legitimate Mr. Putin’s shrouded machinations by deploying our own impulsively — whether in cyberspace or other types of covert action. Sustaining military and diplomatic channels is not a favor or a sign of weakness. It’s a way to demonstrate that while we will not give in to Mr. Putin, we will not give up on the longer-term prospect of a healthier relationship with Russia.
It may very well be that last week’s countermeasures are nothing more than a passing phase. We already see cracks within the European Union and Britain is divided by the Brexit debates. The Trump administration has signaled policy shifts, like pulling out of the Iranian nuclear agreement, that will make it easier for Mr. Putin to create wedges.
American actions this past week offer a hopeful sign. Agile diplomacy can still land a punch. Now comes the hard part. Diplomacy won’t transform the adversarial relationship with Mr. Putin’s Russia, but it can manage it. Mr. Putin is right about one thing: We have the stronger cards. We’ve just played them erratically.
Now we should lead with diplomacy and demonstrate its enduring power and purpose. If we don’t, we’ll perpetuate illusions about partnerships with Mr. Putin and the irrelevance of diplomacy — and waste our bigger, better hand.