This week (August 1), US diplomatic staff in Moscow evacuated a residence (dacha) and a tattered warehouse complex in in the capital city as part of a delayed tit-for-tat retaliation for an expulsion of Russian diplomats last December and the seizing of Russian country residences (dachas) in Maryland and Long Island. Washington had seized the properties and expelled those Russian embassy personnel as punishment for Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections. The US dacha in the Serebryany Bor Moscow River estuary recreation zone is one of a number of ambassadorial buildings that the Soviet authorities provided to foreigners many decades ago. Serebryany Bor was then on the outskirts of Moscow, but now it is a quiet wooded area deep in the middle of a sprawling megacity of concrete high-rises. The relatively small, one-story wooden US bungalow-style Serebryany Bor dacha was apparently used for barbeque parties. Its confiscation, though unpleasant, will hardly impede US diplomatic activities in Russia. Much more hindrance could be inflicted by the Russian demand to dramatically cut the number of personnel at the US embassy and consulates in Russia to 455 by September 1, 2017. According to President Vladimir Putin, some 755 US staff persons must be cut, but the US authorities should decide themselves whom to recall or fire. Apparently, only 25 percent of the estimated 1,200 US staff in Russia are US citizens—the rest being local Russian employees. Washington could theoretically not recall any of its diplomats at all, but mass fire Russians instead. Of course, a severe reduction in support personnel would undoubtedly slow down the work of the embassy and, in particular, its visa department (Kommersant, August 1).
In late July, Putin announced Moscow will figure out its response to the US sanctions bill after its final text is published (TASS, July 27). In fact, the tit-for-tat response was announced and the takeover of US diplomatic property in Moscow accomplished after the Senate voted 98 to 2 in favor, but before President Donald Trump signed the bill. That could have been a deliberate attempt by the Kremlin to separate the “good” Trump from the “Russophobe Congress.” Russian officials and the press have been portraying Trump as a victim of the Washington establishment, who has been forced to sign a sanction bill against his better judgment. In a signing statement, Trump complained about the sanction law infringing on his Constitutional foreign policy presidential prerogatives. It is hoped in Moscow the Trump administration will refrain from implementing parts of the sanction law it does not like and that the US president may yet resist the anti-Russian Congress (Kommersant, August 3). A Trump Tweet on August 3 seems to agree with the dominant opinion in Moscow and has been widely quoted: “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress” (Interfax, August 3).
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in a Facebook post, pitied Trump: “The administration has demonstrated its powerlessness and has been humiliated by handing over executive power to Congress, which changes the balance of power [in Washington].” In Moscow, the parliament is a powerless rubber stamp institution, subservient to any Kremlin whim; thus, Trump bowing to the joint will of Congress is seen as an ultimate humiliation. According to Medvedev, “The new sanctions are a move to reduce Trump, and other [similar moves] will follow with the ultimate aim to remove him from power.” A trade war has been declared on Russia, and any hope of improving relations has been lost, continues Medvedev, “Sanctions will now last for decades, while relations will be strained no matter who is in charge of the White House” (Interfax, August 2).
According to Senator Alexei Pushkov, a former chair of the Duma Foreign Relations Committee, Russia and the US still carry on limited security cooperation in Syria, and diplomatic relations have not yet been severed. But relations are progressively growing worse and the “unthinkable”—a possible direct US-Russian military confrontation—“is being discussed by experts behind closed doors,” he claimed (Militarynews.ru, August 2). Russian Senator Frantz Klintsevich, the deputy chair of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security, told journalists, “Despite all their differences, Russia and the US must continue security interactions to prevent a global [nuclear] war” (Militarynews.ru, August 2). The pro-Kremlin Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who after sending his loyal Kadyrovtsi fighters to serve in Syria as Russian Military Police, has been pushing to have an imprint on Moscow’s foreign policy. Speaking with journalists, he declared, “Russia will survive US sanctions and prosper, but they [sanctions] will come back to hurt America and create splits with its European allies” (Interfax, August 2). The possible weakening of transatlantic ties has been a longtime Russian strategic dream, and there is now widespread hope in Moscow it may be happening soon.
Reports that Washington could be considering providing the Ukrainian military with anti-tank and possibly anti-aircraft guided missiles have raised alarm in Moscow. The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called on “all nations interested in defusing the conflict [in Ukraine] to refrain from actions that may provoke an increase in tensions” (Interfax, August 1). Russian experts believe Washington may indeed decide to ship arms to the Ukrainians, “though Europe will not like that, but it cannot decisively influence American decision-making.” Russia would, in turn, send more modern arms to the pro-Russia Donbas separatists (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 2).
During the Cold War, the relatively nonviolent or “cold” standoff between East and West was in direct contact between the two blocks in Europe. But all over the world—in Korea, Vietnam and Indochina, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America—there were almost constant proxy wars in which Russian and US military operatives also often clashed, though mostly unofficially. Today, a new cold war front seems to be crystalizing in the Baltics and Poland, where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russian forces face each other in something reminiscent of a direct non-combative standoff. The main theater of a “hot” East versus West proxy war, in turn, could become Ukraine. The coming next several weeks of August will be decisive: Will the downturn in relations between Moscow and Washington translate into an upsurge of fighting in Ukraine? Or will the summer fighting season, which ends as September turns into October, continue to be characterized by fairly minor clashes along a relatively stable Donbas front line?