WASHINGTON — Some senior Trump administration officials are pressing for more aggressive action toward Russia, hoping to persuade a reluctant President Trump to change his approach after a week of mass diplomatic expulsions that have driven the relationship with Moscow to its lowest point in decades.
With hundreds of diplomats in Washington, Moscow and European capitals packing their bags as the tensions stemming from the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Britain have worsened, the Trump team is eyeing additional sanctions and other measures against Russia. But while aides say the president has become increasingly convinced that Russia is dangerous, he has still refused to embrace a tougher public posture himself and remains uncertain how far to authorize his administration to go.
Mr. Trump has emphasized the importance of dialogue with Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, yet the departure of so many diplomats expelled from both Russia and the United States will make it that much harder to maintain a semblance of normal relations between the two countries. Cooperation in areas as varied as agriculture, counterterrorism, military affairs and space exploration could diminish, as could private travel and business dealings.
The perils of the diplomatic breakdown came into sharper relief on Friday. Russia’s ambassador in Washington lamented that no one would meet with him, and his embassy complained that Russian diplomats were being harassed by American intelligence agencies eager to recruit them.
The Pentagon, for its part, said that it had no notice of a test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile conducted by Russia and announced on Friday, a lack of communication that experts worry could lead to miscalculation.
“I don’t remember such bad shape of our relations,” Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to Washington, told NBC’s “Today” show. “There is a great mistrust between the United States and Russia.”
Since his arrival last year in Washington, Mr. Antonov said he had invited American officials to his residence only to be repeatedly rebuffed. “If they are scared, I said, ‘Come on, we can meet in a restaurant and to discuss all outstanding issues,’” he said. “It was four or five months ago. And I got answer: silent.”
American officials said a shift in the administration’s approach has been building for weeks. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, whose last official day on the job is Saturday, had come to the conclusion before Mr. Trump fired him this month that a year of attempting to cooperate had not yielded much success, according to people familiar with his thinking. As a result, they said, Mr. Tillerson had begun mapping out a tougher policy toward Russia and found agreement in the White House.
The administration began taking a more robust approach, publicly blaming Russia for a devastating attack on computers in Ukraine and elsewhere, accusing Moscow of trying to break into the United States’ power grid and imposing sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election in the United States.
Mr. Tillerson’s feelings were hardened further by a conversation with Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary who described to him the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter living in Britain. Even in the hours before his dismissal by Mr. Trump, Mr. Tillerson spoke out in stronger terms than the president in condemning the poisoning.
While Mr. Tillerson is on the way out, his designated successor, Mike Pompeo, and the incoming national security adviser, John R. Bolton, are both considered even more hawkish on Russia.
At the same time, some officials at the Pentagon have expressed caution about the escalating conflict with Russia, citing consequences in Syria, where the United States and Russia have both conducted military operations.
The Trump administration expelled 60 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers and closed the Russian Consulate in Seattle this week as part of a wider international retaliation for the poisoning of Mr. Skripal. Russia responded Thursday by ordering out 60 Americans and closing the consulate in St. Petersburg.
The scope of Russia’s retaliation grew clearer on Friday as the Kremlin summoned 23 ambassadors from other countries to evict some of their diplomats. On Saturday, the Tass news agency reported that Moscow had informed Britain it must send home a total of “more than 50” diplomats. Russia had already announced the expulsion of 23 Britons.
Mr. Trump has remained publicly silent amid the dramatic rounds of diplomatic retaliation, leaving it to others to condemn Moscow. Frustrated by the investigation of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into whether his campaign cooperated with Russia in 2016, a scenario he dismissed as a “hoax,” Mr. Trump recently called Mr. Putin to congratulate him on his victory in a re-election widely dismissed as a sham.
Mr. Trump made no mention of the poisoning of Mr. Skripal during the call but instead suggested that he wanted to schedule a summit meeting with the Russian president.
Both countries still have ambassadors in place, so high-level contact on potentially calamitous matters should continue, as it did at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. But the wheels of basic diplomacy, involving visas, consular services, cultural events and simply talking to people, are grinding ever more slowly and, in some cases, coming to a halt.
“The parties lose some of their eyes and ears, so the quality of the reporting goes down,” said Charles A. Kupchan, who was the Europe director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “It’s not just intelligence but day-to-day political and economic reporting: What’s the buzz in the street, what do interlocutors say? And consular services do get hit.”
The expulsions left many diplomats wondering how the American Embassy in Moscow could operate. Much of the burden will fall on the ambassador, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who took over an embassy already struggling to function after an order by the Kremlin last summer that it dispense with 755 employees in response to sweeping American sanctions for Russia’s election meddling.
“The embassy is struggling to do basic operations. This latest round will hurt,” said Michael A. McFaul, who served as ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to 2014. “Morale, of course, is also very low.”
Even before this week’s expulsions, the wait in Moscow to obtain a visitor’s visa to the United States was among the longest in the world. It now takes 250 days just to get an appointment with the visa section, compared with four in Beijing and 31 in New Delhi.
An American spokesman told Russian news media this week that the embassy had been placed under “significant constraints” by the Foreign Ministry and “could not accommodate all their many requests at all times, particularly for large groups.”
Simon Schuchat, a former diplomat at the embassy in the Moscow, recalled how haphazard and unnerving it was when Russia began the process of ousting alleged spies during a round of expulsions in 2001. Inevitably, Moscow ordered out diplomats unconnected to espionage.
“They tended to go for people with better language skills,” Mr. Schuchat said, adding that they “missed many spies and included many non-spies.”
This time around, intelligence officers working under “official cover” as diplomats were especially targeted, but some American officials played down the impact, saying the United States still came out ahead in the expulsions.
“That’s to our benefit,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said at a seminar on Thursday in Austin, Tex. “There are a lot more Russians in America than Americans in Russia in the intelligence agencies.”
On Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the agencies overseen by Mr. Coats of exploiting the situation by approaching Russian diplomats leaving the United States to offer “assistance” in exchange for “entering into covert relations” on behalf of the American government.
“The ploy is not working,” the ministry said in a statement, “but their behavior is cynical and distasteful, as if Washington has stepped completely beyond the bounds of common decency.”
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