In recent months, Russian intel and security services have been harassing US diplomats and their families in Moscow and other European capitals. John Kerry’s pathetic attempt at demanding they stop was brushed aside by Putin in March.
Russia’s nefarious activity ranges from creepy (showing up uninvited to family events) to criminal (sneaking into homes at night to play pranks). One US diplomat found human excrement on his living room floor.
US diplomats in Moscow complain of slashed tires and harassment by police officers. This type of behavior is not new. During Obama’s first term as president, Russian agents broke into the house of the US defense attaché and killed his dog.
Obama’s presidency marked the start of a giant game of cat and mouse in which Putin is the cat and (you guessed it) Obama is the mouse. As I wrote in May, China has followed Russia’s example.
Things only got worse after Putin’s Ukraine intervention in 2014. “Since the return of Putin, Russia has been engaged in an increasingly aggressive gray war across Europe. Now it’s in retaliation for western sanctions because of Ukraine. The widely reported harassment is another front in the gray war,” says US ambassador Norm Eisen. “They are hitting American diplomats literally where they live.”
Putin denies such claims, stating that he does not want a second Cold War with the West: “I wouldn’t want to think we are moving towards some Cold War. And I am sure nobody wants that. We certainly don’t want that. There is no Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist, but for whatever reason it is necessary to constantly expand NATO’s infrastructure moving it toward Russian borders.”
The State Department has ramped up efforts to combat Russian harassment, but diplomats who report on Russian activities often face more problems than those who ignore it. President Obama has decided not to respond to Russia’s bullying with similar tactics.
“It was part of a way to put pressure on government officials who were trying to do their reporting jobs. It definitely escalated when I was there,” says former ambassador Michael McFaul. “After the invasion of Ukraine, it got much, much worse. We were feeling embattle out there in the embassy.”
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington defends the harassment as a response to US “provocations and mistreatment” of Russian diplomats here in the US: “The deterioration of US-Russia relations, which was not caused by us, but rather by the current Administrations’ policy of sanctions and attempts to isolate Russia, had a negative effect on the functioning of diplomatic missions, both in the US and Russia. In diplomatic practice there is always the principle of reciprocity and, indeed, for the last couple of years our diplomatic staff in the US has been facing certain problems.”
Russia’s actions can hardly be defended as “reciprocity” for whatever restrictions Russian diplomats are subjected to in the states, but they can be viewed as another not-so-subtle hint from Putin that he knows Obama is too afraid to act against him.
“The problem is there have been no consequences for Russia,” says Ohio Rep. Mike Turner. “The administration continues to puruse a false narrative that Russia can be our partner. They clearly don’t want to be our partner, they’ve identified us as an adversary, and we need to prepare for that type of relationship.”
Maybe our next president will be prepared, but our current one certainly isn’t.