In retaliation for new U.S. sanctions, Russia announced Friday that it is reducing the number of U.S. diplomats in the country and shutting down the U.S. Embassy’s recreational retreat outside Moscow. It will now cap the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country at 455, though it’s not immediately clear how many are currently there.
This is a direct response to measures taken by the Obama administration in December to punish Russia for its meddling in the 2016 presidential election. That decision expelled 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two recreational compounds—one on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and one on Long Island, New York—that were allegedly used for espionage activities.
At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided not to take any retaliatory measures, saying he would pursue better ties with the incoming Trump administration. Trump, naturally, immediately praised that decision, tweeting on Dec. 29, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!” (We now know that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak had discussed the sanctions the day they were announced.)
Six months into the Trump administration, not only has there been no movement toward lifting those sanctions—despite many indications that administration officials would like to—but Congress just made doing so a lot harder. Congress has overwhelmingly passed a bill—419–3 in the House, 98–2 in the Senate—that codifies as law Obama’s executive orders sanctioning Russia and constrains Trump’s ability to lift sanctions without congressional approval. Evidently, about the only thing that has wide bipartisan support on Capitol Hill right now is the notion that Trump can’t be trusted to cut deals with the Russians. The White House has indicated it will support the bill, though as always, it’s hard to predict what Trump will actually do when it lands on his desk.
Russia, however, seems to have run out of patience with Trump. The (mostly accurate) line in Moscow now seems to be that because of the Russia investigation and U.S. domestic politics, Trump is powerless to deal with Russia the way he’d like to. "What we are seeing [in the U.S.] is merely anti-Russia hysteria," Putin told CNN this week in Finland, adding, "It is a great pity that Russian-American relations are being sacrificed to this domestic, internal American issue." Another Russian official told NBC’s Richard Engel that they view Trump as "a prisoner in the White House."
Whatever role the Russian government played in helping Trump’s campaign, this certainly wasn’t what it had in mind.