At long last, the Trump administration is showing signs of getting tough with Russia for its rogue behavior.
Earlier this month, the U.S. sanctioned 13 Russians and three Russian companies already indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller, along with six Russian military intelligence officials.
And, on Monday, the United States joined 22 other nations in sending 130 Russian diplomats and spies packing as punishment for Moscow’s brazen use of a military grade nerve agent in an attempt to kill a former spy on United Kingdom soil earlier this month.
The U.S. move was the most sweeping of all the countries: expelling 48 Russian officials, 12 spies and shutting down a Russian consulate in Seattle. About 400 Russian diplomats remain in the United States.
These actions are a laudable start. Too bad they were undercut by last week’s phone call in which President Trump inexplicably failed to raise the the nerve-agent attack with Vladimir Putin and congratulated the Russian leader for winning re-election in a vote that was anything but democratic.
Such placating can only leave Putin wondering how serious Trump is — notwithstanding the expulsions — about confronting a growing ledger of Russian malfeasance in Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan and, worst of all for Americans, in the undermining of U.S. elections with disinformation warfare and in the hacking of U.S. utilities.
If Trump would break his puzzling personal silence on criticizing Putin and openly chastise the former KGB officer, it would tamp down the speculation about Trump being in Putin’s pocket. Beyond that, there’s an arsenal of actions the U.S. could take to send the message that Moscow had better start exercising restraint:
►The Treasury Department has carefully assembled a name-and-shame “Kremlin list” of Putin’s wealthy inner circle of oligarchs, along with their individual net worth, a move dictated by a sanctions law overwhelmingly passed by Congress last summer. Let’s see additional resources for a short-staffed Treasury Department to unravel the maze of shell companies these Putin cronies use. That would pave the way for future actions such as asset seizures.
►Secondary sanctions could be levied against companies around the world that do business with any of the three dozen Russian defense companies and intelligence agencies the State Department has already identified. Similar U.S. measures have been used to isolate North Korea.
►There could be moves to bar U.S. citizens from purchasing Russian bonds as a way to put pressure on a Russian economy that rests heavily on the price of oil and gas and is only now emerging from recession.
And here’s one more thought. What about boycotting soccer’s World Cup, slated for June and July in Russia, and organizing a rival tournament?
The expulsion of scores of Russian diplomats by 23 countries, led by the U.S. and Great Britain, is a fine display of unified action. But Russia can easily reciprocate with its own slate of expulsions.
Putin likes to push the limits of what he can get away it. Now the West, finally, is starting to push back. What’s necessary now are steps strong enough for Russia to suffer the consequences of rogue behavior, or to prompt a change of behavior.