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The View From Moscow On U.S.-Russia Diplomatic Tensions


We have a Russian perspective now on the expulsion of U.S. diplomats from Moscow. The American Embassy has informed its staff that most of them will have to go. President Vladimir Putin was retaliating for U.S. sanctions, which were imposed in turn for Russian meddling in the U.S. election. Andrey Kortunov is the director of the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, which is a think tank established by President Putin's office. And he's on the line from there. Welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: How, if at all, does Russia benefit from having fewer U.S. diplomats around?

KORTUNOV: Well, I'm not sure that ordinary Russians will benefit from that because the (unintelligible) that the consulate sections (ph) will suffer more than others. It means that we will have to wait for our U.S. visas longer than we used to. However, I think it's a matter of principle. And it's not just that Putin would like to expel a couple of U.S. diplomats from Russia, but the Kremlin argues that they would like to restore parities. So they would like to have as many diplomats from the United States in this country as Russia has in the United States.

INSKEEP: Now, President Putin said he took this move - ordering, I believe, 755 people to be taken off the U.S. payroll there - because he's essentially given up on relations improving between the United States and Russia. Why would he say on television, within the last day or so, that he doesn't think relations can improve?

KORTUNOV: Well, I think that there is a disappointment here in this city, probably because there were too high expectations that President Trump, once in office, could, quote, unquote, "fix the relationship" and that we would live happily after that. So there is a kind of frustration to watch all the recent developments in the U.S.-Russian relations.

But at the same time, I think that there are still some expectations that probably this administration can use the sanctions in a more flexible way than it is anticipated. And my take is that, you know, Putin could have taken some other measures, including U.S.-Russian cooperation on regional matters or U.S.-Russian arms-control agreements. He preferred to limit himself just to the diplomatic domain, which...

INSKEEP: Oh, you're saying that he could have, for example, been much less cooperative with the United States in Syria - just to pick a place. That's the kind of thing that could of...

KORTUNOV: Well, yeah, I think that might have related to Syria or to North Korea. But of course, in these cases, it's not just about the U.S. interests. Russia's interests as well imply some level of cooperation with the United States. So I think that President Putin was rather careful in selecting the areas in which he believes he can send a clear signal to Washington without jeopardizing what is really important in the (unintelligible) of cooperation.

INSKEEP: It seems clear to us, from this distance, that Russian authorities are very unhappy about U.S. sanctions. And of course, this latest move against U.S. diplomats was because of strengthening U.S. sanctions. Although, Vice President Mike Pence, as you know, has been visiting Estonia, Russia's neighbor. And he's been making some public statements. And one of them is that Russia can get the sanctions lifted if Russia were to reverse the actions that caused sanctions to be imposed - for example, Russia's actions in Ukraine. Is there any chance of that?

KORTUNOV: Well, you know, I think that here in Moscow probably they would not share this optimism because we have experience with the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was introduced by the U.S. Congress back in 1974. And the intention was to assist free immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel. And this amendment was lifted only in 38 years. The Soviet Union was gone, and there was no - you know, no restrictions on emigration from Russia to Israel whatsoever.

INSKEEP: Oh, you don't think that the United States would actually lift sanctions if Russia were to change its behavior.

KORTUNOV: Well, I'm afraid that it is something that will last for a very, very long time, no matter what this administration would like to see.

INSKEEP: OK, Mr. Kortunov, thanks very much.

KORTUNOV: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Andrey Kortunov is director of the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow. That's a think tank that was established by President Putin's office there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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