Expelling diplomats is a poor tactic
Staffers working in the seven-story building high on a hill in San Francisco, home of the Russian consulate since 1972, received an eviction notice last week giving them two days to clear out.
They don’t have to leave the country, just the building. The same notice was given to Russian diplomatic annexes in Washington and New York.
Details are sketchy. For example, does Russia own or lease these buildings? Can it sell or sub-lease? Can it get out of its contract for satellite TV? How many staffers will be displaced from their offices? Can they telecommute for work?
It’s almost comical watching the ever-developing Russian interference-in-our-election debacle. First, the Obama administration closed a couple of Russia’s vacation compounds here, expelled dozens of their diplomats and reinstated some economic sanctions to penalize Russian businesses.
But Congress wasn’t satisfied and forced the incoming Trump administration to tighten sanctions further.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered us to recall hundreds of our diplomats, so we have slowed the processing of visa applications for Russians wishing to visit the United States (which hurts us).
Then we ordered three of their diplomatic facilities to be closed — so naturally, processing of visas for Americans wishing to visit Russia suddenly grinds to a crawl (which hurts them).
Isn’t this reminiscent of schoolyard taunts? “You’re a spy!” “Am not!” “Are so!” “Am not!”
This nonsense has been going on for nearly 10 months and there’s no end in sight. It’s now Putin’s move and he may have retaliated even before this column has gone to press.
What’s a vacation compound, anyway? Is it like a fenced-in, all-inclusive Sandals resort?
In any event, this is a game Putin can’t possibly win. He can close the U.S. vacation compound (if there is such a thing) in Yekaterinburg, with a summer temperature peak of 65 toasty degrees, and we will retaliate by shuttering the Russian swing spot in Miami. Game over.
Despite optics that may seem silly, the latest move is unquestionably an escalation. While expelling diplomats can definitely slow operations, shutting down facilities causes serious disruption.
The many chicken hawks who applaud this latest move to get tough on Russia should keep in mind that it comes with many downsides.
Not only will visa processing suffer, so will trade initiatives between the countries. The press may want us to believe Trump is the only person doing business with Russia, but it just isn’t so.
Though it’s not one of our largest trading partners, tens of billions of dollars in goods are exchanged annually. And Putin has an agreement with our ally, Jordan, for a cease-fire in Syria — a deal brokered by countless professional diplomats from several countries.
Surely the Russians have a spy or two embedded in our consulates here, and no doubt we have the same over there. They may bring intrigue, but they also own homes, buy groceries, worship and raise families; they interact and come to understand the differences, and similarities, of here versus there.
This back-channel communication network, albeit with agenda, helps insure that tough-talking leaders just keep talking.
Columnist Michael Raymond can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.