Moscow retaliated against new US sanctions by barring 755 US diplomatic workers, many of them American, from working in Russia indefinitely.
Moscow retaliated against new US sanctions over the weekend by demanding that 755 diplomatic workers, many of them American, be cut from the US Embassy in Moscow and from US diplomatic missions in St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, and Vladivostok.
The reprisal was far from surprising. President Barack Obama issued new sanctions in December, and Congress had been debating the legislation for months before recently passing it, leaving Russian President Vladimir Putin ample time to contemplate a response.
The White House said in a statement last week that President Donald Trump intended to sign the bill. But there was no indication that the legislation pleased the president, who has said he still harbors doubts about whether Russia was behind last year's hacks on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta.
"President Donald J. Trump read early drafts of the bill and negotiated regarding critical elements of it," the statement from the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said. "He has now reviewed the final version and, based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it."
It is not clear which elements of the bill were negotiated. The White House and the offices of the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee did not respond to requests for comment.
But the bill's provision that the president may not ease or lift sanctions without congressional approval effectively handcuffed Trump at the moment he was lurching toward a closer relationship with Putin.
"Even if Trump is inclined to take steps the Russians would welcome, both houses of Congress have now indicated overwhelmingly that they don't trust Trump in dealing with Russia and are going to impose major limits on his leeway for action," said Mark Kramer, the program director for the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Affairs.
Moscow probably won't rule out economic warfare as one phase of a multipronged response that Putin will most likely make up "on the fly," Andrei Kolesnikov, a veteran member of Putin’s press pool, told The Washington Post. But a harsher economic response would most likely harm Russia's economy more than the US's.
Instead, the diplomatic tit for tat "could be a convenient place for both to pause," said Joshua Tucker, the director of New York University's Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia.
"For the moment, the retaliation is probably done if the US doesn't do anything drastic in response," Tucker said on Sunday night. "Putin wants to show the international community — and probably his domestic audience as well — that he can't be pushed around, and now he's pushed back."
Derek Chollet, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council, said the pushback was "right out of the Putin playbook."
"In Putin's mind, if it's worth doing, its worth overdoing," said Chollet, who is now the executive vice president for security and defense policy at The German Marshall Fund. "The scale of the cuts he's demanding are significant, even by Cold War standards."
Chollet noted that the standoff could be "an opening bid for Trump to try find a pathway to better relations with Russia."
"That seems to be what the Kremlin is hoping for," he added.
Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesman, told reporters on Monday that "the will to normalize" US-Russia relations "should be placed on the record."
Kramer, of Harvard, said these kinds of diplomatic cuts "are not necessarily a sign of sharp spiral downward," pointing for comparison to a similar episode between the US and the Soviet Union in 1986.
"In 1986, the United States and the Soviet Union expelled large numbers of personnel from each other's diplomatic facilities, yet this was followed over the next few years by a fundamental improvement of relations, inspired by huge changes in Soviet foreign policy," he said.
While a change in Russia's foreign policy is unlikely, he added, "staffing levels alone don't determine, or even have much effect on, the relationship."
But Chollet said the tit for tat "further confirms that the US-Russia relationship is as bad as it's been for quite some time" and poses a "new test" for Trump: "Does he let this move by Putin go, or is this a further escalation that warrants a new response?"
As is, the staffing cuts will hurt Russians more than Americans. The vast majority of diplomatic workers being dismissed are Russian — the US has fewer than 340 of its own personnel at the US Embassy and the US missions in St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, and Vladivostok, compared with about 930 Russian staff members.
Russia's ban on Western food imports in retaliation for Obama's 2014 sanctions similarly harmed Russians more than Americans.
Jeremy Bash, the former chief of staff at the Defense Department and the CIA, predicted that the Trump-Putin "bromance" would continue because Putin would know Trump was backed into a corner by Congress. But Tucker argued that it was "impossible" to tell what Trump would do next.
"He seems to lack any coherent plan with regard to policy on anything other than wanting to 'win,'" he said. "For a while, Russia seemed to be the exception to his otherwise rudderless policy plans, as he and his campaign showed a pretty strong determination to stick to a pro-Russia policy, even in the face of establishment Republican resistance."
Now, he said, "who knows?"
Over the weekend, Trump criticized Congress for its failure to pass a healthcare bill and attacked China for its reluctance to rein in North Korea. As of Monday morning, however, Trump still had not responded to Russia's retaliatory embassy cuts.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he turns back to a more pro-Russia policy when given the chance," Tucker said.
Chollet was more skeptical.
"US and Russian interests fundamentally collide," Chollet said. "So to the extent that Trump wants to have a good relationship with Putin, it's hard to see what the basis of that relationship would be. Despite what Trump is tweeting or what he says he wants, the reality of US-Russia relations may now be setting in."