While a section of foreign policy experts was unsure about US President Donald Trump would indeed see expulsion of Russian diplomats as a response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England, because of his 'soft corner' for the Kremlin, the eventual expulsion of 60 Russian envoys by the US on Monday, March 26, set up the stage for the next round of the drama in international politics.
The step taken by the US following up those by a number of European Union (EU) members prepared the stage for yet another serious diplomatic face-off between Putin and the West since Russia annexed Crimea in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
UK succeeded in uniting Europe against Russia
The UK had made the initial move by expelling 23 Russian diplomats after the poisoning incident and thereafter, its prime minister Theresa May convinced the EU that Russia not only had scant regard for borders, its alleged act also showed a pattern of its aggression against Europe.
The EU members accepted the viewpoint that the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was carried out by the Russian government. Fourteen EU states expelled Russian diplomats and the EU itself too recalled its ambassador to the UN.
West's unity in times of Brexit, Trump unusual
The steps were taken by the West, including the US, to expel the Russian diplomats show a solidarity with the UK which is quite unusual in the era of Brexit and Trump which has seen a considerable fracture in the West's internal terms.
The European Council also said that additional measures, including further expulsions, were not unlikely in the coming days, which means more face-off between Russia and the West were on the cards.
The entire episode marks a diplomatic victory for May as she even managed to make Trump toughen the stand against Russia, something which seemed unlikely till not so long ago. The UK made use of international institutions like the EU, United Nations, NATO and also Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or OPCW to strengthen its attack on Russia over the Salisbury poisoning incident.
Russia has also retaliated by expelling UK diplomats and is expected to do so more in times to come but by expelling so many Russian diplomats from their territories, the West has ensured that Moscow would see a serious impact on its overseas intelligence network.
Moscow perhaps saw an opportunity to defeat West in the Brexit chaos and the EU's internal problems and the US which is looking directionless under the Trump administration.
The Trump administration's decision to throw out 48 Russian diplomats in the US and shutting the Russian Consulate General in Seattle besides expelling another 12 Russian diplomats in the UN in New York was particularly significant and would surprise a Putin confident of narrowing its gap with the world's only superpower since the Cold War days.
Have Pompeo and Bolton made a difference in Washington's Russia policy?
One would also think that the recent changes in the top rungs of the Trump administration could also have a bearing on Washington's Russia policy. Former CIA chief Mike Pompeo recently took over from Rex Tillerson as the US Secretary of State while John Bolton would replace HR McMaster as the national security adviser in April.
Both these men are expected to take back the US foreign policy to its hawkish days and hence take a more aggressive stand on its former foe. Tillerson was known to be more moderate on Russia while Pompeo has a tough stance on Russia. Bolton has also been known to be in favour of a strong policy vis-à-vis Moscow.
The stage has been laid out for a serious episode in the relationship between Russia and a united West since the 2014 Crimea crisis. And it will be interesting to see how things unfold in the upcoming days and especially how Trump conducts his policies vis-à-vis Russia and Europe.