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Dangerous escalation: On Russia’s expulsion U.S. staff (.hindu)

Russia’s expulsion of U.S. mission staff could lock the two countries into a retaliatory spiral.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to cut the U.S. diplomatic presence in the country by 755 signals a serious escalation in tensions between the two superpowers. His move came three days after the U.S. Senate passed a sanctions Bill targeting Moscow and allies. The scale of the cut is unprecedented and is comparable to the shutdown of the American diplomatic mission in Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The decision also signals that Mr. Putin, who had pinned hopes on the Donald Trump administration to improve ties, is losing heart about such a reset. When Barack Obama expelled Russian diplomats in the last leg of his presidency over Moscow’s alleged interference in the presidential election, Mr. Putin did not retaliate, apparently hoping to strike a new beginning with the incoming administration. During his campaign, Mr. Trump himself had expressed interest in building stronger ties with Moscow. But despite Mr. Trump’s overtures, the U.S. establishment has continued to take a hard-line position towards Moscow. While the investigation into the allegations of Russia’s election-time interference is still under way, Congress went ahead preparing the sanctions Bill. Passed by both Houses of Congress with a near-total majority, the Bill also seeks to limit Mr. Trump’s ability to suspend or lift sanctions on Russia. After the White House said the President would sign the Bill, Moscow retaliated.

The new sanctions will add to Russia’s economic troubles at a time it is already battling sanctions imposed by Europe and the U.S., and dealing with a commodities meltdown. Mr. Putin could impose counter-sanctions, but the chances of winning a trade war with the world’s largest economy are slim. Hence, Russia’s formal declaration of a diplomatic war to show that it can hurt America’s geopolitical interests elsewhere. Whenever Russia and the U.S. joined hands to address the world’s pressing problems in recent years, there were results. The Iran nuclear deal is one example. The Trump administration’s willingness to work with the Russians in Syria has also helped calm parts of the war-ravaged country. The ceasefire brokered by Moscow and Washington between the Syrian regime and rebels in July is still holding, raising hopes for a sustainable political solution to the crisis. Besides, if the U.S. wants to address the North Korean nuclear crisis diplomatically, which is perhaps the biggest foreign policy challenge before the Trump administration today, it could do with Russia’s help. Russia is also crucial to stabilising Afghanistan, where it is reportedly arming the Taliban. But instead of expanding their cooperation and addressing these challenges as responsible global leaders, the nuclear-armed powers seem to have fallen into the old Cold War-era spiral of irrational mutual hostility.

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