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How will the global effort to expel diplomats affect Russia?

Sixty Russian diplomats are being kicked out of the U.S. in a bid to punish the Kremlin for an attack on a former Russian spy in the UK. Is that the right response? Nick Schifrin gets reaction from two former State Department officials, Victoria Nuland of the Center for a New American Security and Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the U.S. and European expulsion of Russian diplomats.

    Nick Schifrin has more on the Trump administration’s decision.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, thank you.

    I’m joined by Victoria Nuland, the former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs during the Obama administration. She also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO. And she’s now CEO of the Center for a New American Security, a defense policy group. And Paul Saunders, who worked in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration focusing on Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet states. He’s now executive director of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank.

    And welcome to you both.

  • Paul Saunders:

    Thank you.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Paul Saunders, let me start with you.

    Was today’s response appropriate?

  • Paul Saunders:

    I think it’s entirely appropriate if the U.S. government knows that Russia is guilty of the poisoning. What is not yet clear from the information, at least that’s been released to the public, is how certain we really are.

    And I would point by way of explanation to actually of what I mean, to a press release from the State Department last week about the designation of a French national as a terrorist in Syria. And this man was designated as a terrorist because he was allegedly producing and helping ISIS to use chemical weapons on the battlefield.

    We were told for seven years that every time chemical weapons were used in Syria that that was done by the Assad regime because no one else had the capability to use chemical weapons. Now we’re hearing from our own State Department that, actually, other people, including ISIS, have the ability in Syria to use chemical weapons.

    The reason I give this long story is just to illustrate that determining who is doing what with some of these agents is not always the easiest thing. We had a very unfortunate experience, too, with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

    Now, I fully believe actually that Russia is the most likely suspect, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a difference between being the most likely suspect and proving the case.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Victoria Nuland, you hear Paul Saunders’ skepticism. Do you share that skepticism of whether Russia did this?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    I don’t. I don’t think that 20 governments, including our own, would have joined in solidarity with the U.K. in sending a very important message to Vladimir Putin that using a military nerve agent produced in Russian labs on civilians in Salisbury is acceptable to the international community.

    You know, if it can happen in Salisbury, it can happen in Saint Louis, it can happen in Seattle. So Theresa May spent a number of weeks presenting her evidence to allied governments. You will remember that the incident happened in the beginning of March. We’re now at the end of March. So, it took that time to make the case.

    But it’s very important that we acted so strongly today and that we stood in solidarity and there are costs for Moscow.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Paul Saunders, you have 18 countries responding to this. You have 60 diplomats from Russia kicked out today. Will Russia get the message?

  • Paul Saunders:

    Well, look, has Russia gotten the message from the previous steps that we have taken? So far, it looks like no.

    The Obama administration imposed a variety of sanctions on Russia after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its interference in Eastern Ukraine. The Trump administration, the Congress, there have been a variety of additional measures.

    Russia doesn’t really seem to be getting the message. Then there’s the question of, is that something unique related to Russia that prevents them from getting the message, or do we need to think ourselves a little bit more about our policies, about the message that we’re trying to send, how clear is it, how strong is it, how effective is it?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Victoria Nuland, I imagine you might agree with that, actually.

    So, is the message sent today strong enough, in your opinion, to either deter Russia from doing something like this again or change Russian behavior?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Well, kicking out 60 members of the Russian official staff in the United States and closing another of their consulates, effectively meaning that they have no diplomatic presence on the U.S. West Coast, is not a small thing.

    But I don’t disagree with Paul that it’s relatively easy to reconstitute the intelligence presence in the United States in other ways or when they replace these folks.

    If you really want to get President Putin’s attention, as we ultimately did during the Ukraine crisis, when it looked like he was going to drive all the way to Kiev, you have to hit him where it hurts, which is in his pocketbook. You have to hit him with economic sanctions.

    You have to make it much harder for Russia to get credit, float bonds, this kind of thing, in the United States or in Europe. So I’m glad now that we have a concerted, coordinated policy with some of our key allies on Russia. This is the first time I think the Trump administration has been able to coordinate with allies.

    Now we need to continue the pressure across the board on all of the things of concern, including Russian continued manipulation of democratic processes, our own 2018 elections and 2020.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Paul Saunders, what happens if U.S. hits Russia, so to speak, where it hurts and goes after some of Putin’s lieutenants and some of its money in the West?

  • Paul Saunders:

    Well, we have tried to do some of that already. It really hasn’t made too much of a difference.

    What I think we’re really doing in this situation actually is preventing people in Russia who want to see more reform — and there certainly are people in Russia who want to see more reform — we’re preventing them from playing any meaningful role in the process.

    Economic reformers in Russia at this point have no case to make to Putin, because their entire set of policy proposals, you know, is built around integrating into the international economy, investment, cooperation with the United States and the West. They have got nothing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Victoria Nuland, I will give you the last word. We have heard from the administration today, making a relatively strong stance, but we haven’t heard from the president.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is the president the wild card, and how much can be affected without the president coming out and saying some of the same things the administration is saying?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Well, the only way to have a coherent, comprehensive policy towards Moscow that President Putin will pay attention to is if we are all on the same page, leading with the president. So the fact that he didn’t say anything about this when he made his congratulatory phone call to President Putin could lead Putin to conclude, well, he’s just hamstrung by his bureaucracy, he had to do something for Theresa May, he’s still my buddy.

    And, frankly, the administration’s response won’t be coherent unless the president leads it, as we saw when we finally looked in 2016 at how the Russians had manipulated the elections. We didn’t fully comprehend what had happened until President Obama ordered a whole-of-government look.

    So we need a unified, liberal, free world response to this kind of aggressive behavior, and the United States needs to lead it, and the U.S. president needs to lead that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Paul Saunders, Victoria Nuland, thank you very much.

  • Paul Saunders:

    Thank you.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Thank you.

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