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Former U.S. Ambassador To Russia On How Putin May Respond To Diplomats' Removal


The world is waiting for Vladimir Putin's response after the biggest collective expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War. More than two dozen countries, including the U.S., are removing the Russians in response to a nerve agent attack on British soil. The Kremlin denies involvement in the attack. And Russia's foreign minister says the expulsions are the result of colossal blackmail by the U.S. For more, let's bring in Bill Burns, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. Welcome to the program.

BILL BURNS: Thanks, Ari. It's good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Do you think Moscow was surprised by the size and coordination of this response across so many countries?

BURNS: I think they were. I don't think Putin expected this response. For a number of years now, he's bet on divisions within the West between the U.S. and Europe and amongst Europeans and bet on a kind of lack of willpower. And so I think he was surprised to some extent by the breadth and depth of the response.

SHAPIRO: And so what does this coordination say to you at a time when there have been questions about the strength of NATO, the strength of the European Union, the U.S. alliance with Western European nations?

BURNS: I think it's a reassuring step. It demonstrates the importance of our alliances, what sets us apart in some ways from lonelier powers like Russia and China. I think the question is whether or not this can be sustained, whether it can be turned into a serious long-term strategy for managing a relationship with Russia, which is likely to remain largely adversarial.

SHAPIRO: As you talk about a long-term strategy, British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for the West to develop some sort of a long-term response. What do you think that would look like?

BURNS: Well, I think the next step after this large-scale collective expulsion would logically be steps that have some economic impact. In other words, to take the list of Russian oligarchs that were mandated by the U.S. Congress on the American side and begin to apply measures like freezing assets or travel bans on those, for the British to look at ways in which they can go after the assets of Russian oligarchs who are in London or have property in London and then for other Europeans to look for similar kinds of steps. This is a lot easier said than done, but it's going to be critical to sustain, you know, this first step and turn it into a real strategy.

SHAPIRO: So you're talking about sanctions that would be as coordinated as these expulsions of diplomats.

BURNS: I think that should be the aim anyway because I think it's collective action that's most likely to have an impact on Putin's calculus and on his behavior.

SHAPIRO: Are these expulsions alone likely to have any kind of a major impact?

BURNS: I think Putin himself probably believes he can absorb the expulsions. He'd likely, as he signaled, to take strong reciprocal action, expelling diplomats, probably closing one of our consulates in Russia. But, you know, he's not particularly sentimental about the loss of Russian intelligence operatives in a number of capitals around the world. So the real question I think is going to be what comes next.

SHAPIRO: There's been so much scrutiny of the Trump-Putin relationship. What do you think the U.S. role in these expulsions says about that?

BURNS: Well, I think in some ways it could be the end of an illusion, you know, the illusion under which I think President Trump seems to have operated during the election campaign and in his first year in office, the illusion that you could produce some kind of grand bargain with Putin, build an effective partnership, notwithstanding all the differences that we have. And so, you know, we'll see, but it could be at least the beginning of the end of that illusion. And, you know, for Putin, I think he's had few illusions about President Trump, about the United States. His purpose in meddling in our elections in 2016 was to sow chaos. And I think in some ways he has succeeded beyond his wildest imagination.

SHAPIRO: Just in a few seconds, what kind of a response do you expect from Russia?

BURNS: I think what the Russians have signaled and what I expect at least is going to be reciprocal action. That tends to be their default position in situations like this. Expel a number of foreign diplomats, probably close one of the U.S. consulates in Russia, and he could consider other steps.

SHAPIRO: All right. The former ambassador to Russia, Bill Burns, currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thank you.

BURNS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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