Putin Orders Cuts Of U.S. Diplomatic Corps In Russia
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin says today that Washington needs to show political will for things to get better between the two countries. Right now relations are bad after Congress passed new sanctions against Russia last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
SHAPIRO: Putin said over the weekend that the U.S. must cut 755 people from its embassy and consulate staff in Russia. For what these reductions could mean, we're joined by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Welcome.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: You tweeted yesterday that there weren't 755 Americans in the entire embassy when you were there, which was just a few years ago. So what does this number mean in real-world terms?
MCFAUL: I think it means a combination of American diplomats and contract workers there, Americans, plus the Russian staff. When I worked at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, I think over two-thirds of the staff were actually local hires. So this cut will be both Russians and Americans. And probably a lot more Russians than Americans, by the way, because that's where the first cuts will come from.
SHAPIRO: And what does that mean for the functioning of the U.S. Embassy? It sounds like it'll be empty.
MCFAUL: It'll be horrible. (Laughter) There's no - there's just no doubt about it. We needed every single one of those people when I worked there. It's a very busy embassy with a lot of equities over a lot of different issues. And first and foremost, I think what'll be hurt most actually are services for Russian citizens. And that means that it'll take a lot longer for Russians to get their visas to come to the United States.
SHAPIRO: The Obama administration had about 35 people removed. This is 755 people. Part of your job as U.S. ambassador to Russia was to get in the heads and see things from the perspective of Russian leaders. So if you try to view this move from their perspective, what do you think the rationale is beyond a simple tit-for-tat?
MCFAUL: Well, in my experience in dealing with President Putin, when we get into these tit-for-tat things he always responds in an asymmetric way. So when I was ambassador, we put in place human rights sanctions - it was called the Magnitsky Act - to punish those human rights abusers in Russia. He put on a visa ban list several Americans as well. But then he doubled down and he canceled adoptions for American citizens. And this feels very similar to me, that OK, the United States did this with these 35 individuals - by the way, allegedly most of them worked in intelligence, so they were targeted people. And he decided, OK, I'm going to match them and then double down and make this painful for him. That's a very classic Putin tactic.
SHAPIRO: How much of a shift is this in the way Russia is reacting to President Trump?
MCFAUL: Well, I think it's a big shift. I think they had big hopes back in November that President-elect Trump was going to be somebody that they could receive concessions from, that they could do business with. After all, as a candidate Donald Trump talked that way. But six months in, he hasn't produced anything. It's very unclear what his policy is. The sanctions bill shows that he's a constrained president. And so I think they're just pivoting in a much more confrontational way now.
SHAPIRO: What is the worst-case scenario here?
MCFAUL: I feel like this is the worst-case scenario. I mean, I think you have to go back deep into the Cold War - not the end of the Cold War, but deep into the Cold War - to remember a time when our relationship with Russia was so confrontational. And here I want to be clear. I think most of the action is on the Russian side. President Putin is breaking lots of international norms.
When he violates our sovereignty during election, that's something new. When he annexes territory in Ukraine, that's something we haven't seen since World War II. You know, he's daring. He's playing some weak cards, but he's playing them rather aggressively. And in my opinion, you just have to push back on that. You have to try to contain Russian bad behavior because if you don't, my prediction is that Putin will keep on pushing.
SHAPIRO: Michael McFaul is former U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Obama administration from 2012 to 2014. He's now director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Thanks a lot.
MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECT SANDRO'S "BLAZER")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.