Does the recent expulsion of 60 Russian “diplomats” signal President Trump’s abandonment of his be-nice-to-Russia policy? In three years, he has said nothing publicly against Russia or Putin and orders his staff to do the same. But recent actions speak change.

The expulsion and big defense budget indicate serious toughening. Additionally, Trump ignored advice and congratulated Putin on his recent reelection — what else could he say? — but then warned Putin against an arms race that “I’ll win.”

Trump may have, in spite of himself, stumbled into a nuanced two-hands policy toward Russia — one hand extended in friendship, the other clenched in threat — although “nuance” and “Trump” fit poorly together. Perhaps he simply let experienced officials such as Defense Secretary Mattis take the lead.

Washington and Moscow avoid raising tensions by staying discreetly silent on the casualties Russian contract fighters suffered when they ran into U.S. Special Forces in northern Syria in February. It was the first time since 1919 that Americans and Russians fought each other and could be the first display of the tough hand.

A two-handed policy, tricky to balance, makes strategic and diplomatic sense. You want to appear neither too accommodating nor too hostile. Give the adversary a fateful choice: Which hand do you want?

Why did it take so long for Trump to react strongly to Russia? Many suppose Trump says nothing because Moscow has something on him, such as aiding his 2016 election or financial transactions. But no Russian sources have damaged Trump’s reputation. Moscow stays silent, and for good reasons.

Putin could further tarnish the legitimacy of Trump’s election by admitting Russian influence, but then Putin would lay bare Russia’s massive cyberpenetration campaign, which he’d rather keep denying. Trump campaign staffers’ Russian contacts are clear, but linking them to Trump is not.

If Trump has accepted Russian flight capital, Putin would keep that quiet too, as much of the loot is his. Russians are aware of corruption, but naming who and how much could rouse them.

Accordingly, Putin refrains from using what he may have on Trump. After more than a year of Putin’s silence, Trump may realize that Putin won’t reveal anything, that blackmail cuts both ways. This could explain Trump’s launch of a differential soft-hand, hard-hand policy.



Why PNG 60 Russians, the most ever and more than twice the 23 expelled by Britain, where the nerve-agent attack occurred? It suggests that U.S. counterintelligence has had its eye on Russian spies for years and is itching to get rid of them. This also suggests Trump listens to intel professionals, and the harder line lets Moscow know we don’t trust them.

If the above is approximately what’s happening, we’re indeed shifting back to a Cold War, a process that began with Russia’s nationalistic hardening in the 1990s. It reiterates that there is more foreign-policy continuity than change between administrations.

But this continuity also suggests there’s little we can do to change another country’s behavior. Politicians (except for rare true conservatives) love “agency,” the supposed ability to steer events. Other countries’ policies, however, arise from their domestic needs and perceptions that external forces can hardly budge. “Structure,” the things out of our control, usually dominates “agency.”

Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq did not obey superpower demands. Even Mexico refuses to pay for the wall Trump demands. The Philippines tells the U.S. to get lost. North Korea will likely not give up its nukes. Like King Canute, politicians learn they cannot hold back the tide.

Likewise, U.S. policy can’t do much about Russia and China drawing together to hold off American power. But the Sino-Russian quasi-alliance is on shaky historical ground. Russia took Central Asia in the 19th century and later locked it into the Soviet Union. But now the five “-stans” trade twice as much with China as with Russia. China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative is less about shipping goods to Europe by rail than about tying Central Asia to the Chinese economy. China is colonizing what used to be Russian colonies.

With one-eighth China’s economy and one-tenth its population, Russia tries to punch above its weight but is junior partner to a China that stitches Eurasia together with a vast transportation network. Eventually, Beijing could seek recovery of the quarter-million square miles it lost to Russia in 1858. China and Russia skirmished on their border there in 1969.

Since the 13th-century Mongol conquest, Russia has feared the east. From 1960 to the early 1990s, Russia and China were openly hostile. Amity between them may not be their natural state. Nixon did not create but shrewdly played the Sino-Soviet split.

Let us not exaggerate our influence on the other side of the globe. The best an adroit two-handed U.S. policy toward Russia can do is help stabilize the strategic situation until time weakens Russia’s and China’s economies and splits them apart again. I bet the next president adopts it.