Trump poised to expel Russian diplomats over UK nerve-gas attack

The Russian Embassy in Washington. The likely expulsion of Russian diplomats will align Mr Trump with European allies who feel threatened by Russia and have had a turbulent relationship with the US leader.
The Russian Embassy in Washington. The likely expulsion of Russian diplomats will align Mr Trump with European allies who feel threatened by Russia and have had a turbulent relationship with the US leader. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump is poised to take his most aggressive actions yet against Russia today, when he is likely to announce the expulsion of dozens of diplomats in response to the nerve-gas attack on a former Russian spy living in Britain.

The move, all but certain to provoke retaliation by President Vladimir Putin's government, comes even though Mr Trump has tried to maintain at least the semblance of a constructive relationship with the Russian leader.

But the expulsions will align Mr Trump with European allies who feel threatened by Russia and have had a turbulent relationship with the US President, including British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Several European countries are expected to announce their own expulsions of Russian diplomats in concert with the United States.

While US policy towards Russia has gradually grown more strident in recent months, Mr Trump's critics say he has been slow to respond to Mr Putin's provocations.

Some have drawn a connection to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of possible collusion between Mr Trump's 2016 campaign and the Russian government as well as Mr Trump's past business relationships with Russian figures.

Mr Trump has denied any campaign collusion.

The US considers the diplomats it plans to expel to be spies, carrying out intelligence activities under cover as embassy staff, one person familiar with the matter said. Mr Trump's action would follow a similar move by Mrs May, who ordered 23 Russians that she said were spies to leave Britain over the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

"The United States stands firmly with the United Kingdom in condemning Russia's outrageous action," White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said. "The President is always considering options to hold Russia accountable in response to its malign activities."

But Mr Putin has proven an expert at exploiting even the slightest divisions among Western allies, and Mr Trump is concerned that European capitals may not follow through on promises to tighten the screws on the Kremlin. Mr Trump regards Germany, in particular, as wobbly because of its dependence on Russian fuel supplies.

He discussed the issue last Friday with US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, FBI Director Chris Wray, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, Defence Secretary James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and others, two people familiar with the talks said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.

A division within the White House over how to confront Mr Putin flared after Mr Trump called the Russian President last week and congratulated him for winning an election regarded in the West as largely fraudulent. The praise drew criticism from Congress and ran contrary to written guidance for the call that advised Mr Trump not to congratulate the Russian leader. Mr Trump did not read the guidance.

Congress has pressured Mr Trump to get tougher on Mr Putin and passed legislation last August giving lawmakers the power to block the President from lifting punitive US measures imposed after Russia's incursion into Ukraine.

Mr Trump places a priority on maintaining a personal relationship with the Russian President, would not publicly attack him, and does not see any benefit to the US in confronting Mr Putin in one-on-one encounters, an administration official said. But Russia's brazen aggression is compelling a US response.

The attack against Mr Skripal employed a nerve agent called Novichok manufactured by the Soviet Union, according to the British government. Mrs May earlier this month condemned Russia for the apparent assassination attempt, which critically injured the former Russian spy and his daughter. A British police officer was also hospitalised.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2018, with the headline 'Trump poised to expel Russian diplomats over UK nerve-gas attack'. Print Edition | Subscribe