Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 120

The seemingly happy conclusion of this past weekend’s Russian-U.S. summit, at which the presidents of the two countries agreed to resume high-level defense and security contacts, has apparently not stopped either Washington or Moscow from following through on the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats that followed a major scandal this past spring. That conclusion follows reports out of Moscow yesterday quoting U.S. sources as saying that forty-six American diplomats are packing their bags and will leave Russia in time to meet a July 1 Kremlin deadline. The move comes as forty-six Russian diplomats posted to the United States are themselves preparing to depart for home.

The mass expulsions are the result of a decision by the Bush administration in late March of this year to declare four Russian diplomats persona non grata–allegedly for their connection to accused U.S. spy Robert Hanssen–and to order another forty-six Russian diplomats to pack their bags by the start of the summer. The Russian government responded in kind, according to the same timetable. According to a Moscow Times article published today, however, there had been some hope within the Bush administration that Moscow might back off from its threat of retaliation and quietly let the situation pass. That has apparently proved not to be the case, however. Indeed, Russian authorities had indicated this past spring that, while they were shocked by the scope of the Bush administration’s expulsion order, they also felt that the long lead time left to expel the remaining forty-six diplomats provided them with a unique opportunity to deal a carefully-considered and especially effective blow against Washington. Whether that has proven to be the case is not clear and may never be determined with any certainty (Moscow Times, June 22; AFP, Russian agencies, June 21).

The current diplomatic expulsions, meanwhile, reflect both the fragility of the recent rapprochement between Moscow and Washington and the depths to which relations between the two countries had sunk only a few short months ago. The March spy row, it should be remembered, was triggered only in part by the Hanssen spy case. It was also part and parcel of a broader effort by the then newly installed Bush administration to send a tough message to Moscow, one that involved both a severe downgrading of Russian-U.S. ties and a determination to end engagement with Moscow on the terms that had been set by the Clinton administration.

Whether the current forced departure of diplomats from both the United States and Russia will have any impact on warming Russian-U.S. ties remains to be seen. It seems likely, however, that the two countries will downplay the importance of the expulsions so as to boost the chances of success for what is expected to be a period of intense diplomatic negotiation between Moscow and Washington. As the March spy row and events that surrounded it made clear, however, there remains much that divides Washington and Moscow, and there are many issues that, should political wills falter in either country, could quickly return relations to the contentious state of earlier this year.