MOSCOW—While U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is touring the Baltics and the Caucasus reasserting in no uncertain terms America’s commitment to defend against “the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east,” in fact Russia’s reactions are not unpredictable at all. They are perfectly in character for the government of President Vladimir Putin, showing military strength, diplomatic aggressiveness, and playing on passionate patriotism.
Indeed, Russians might be forgiven for noting that it’s U.S. President Donald Trump who’s unpredictable. “To us America has turned into a mad bull and not a rational creature,” Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov told The Daily Beast.
Pence may be clear about where NATO and Washington stand, but that firmness has yet to be echoed by Trump himself. The U.S. president seems to want to cling to the notion he cherished in the campaign last year that he and Putin could work very, very closely together. Trump still seems to believe he can ignore, deny, or downplay as “fake news” Moscow’s meddling in the election that he won. He forgets the history of the Kremlin-backed aggression in Ukraine, and remains oblivious to the Kremlin’s human-rights abuses, as if all these issues were disconnected from the sanctions imposed on Russia instead of their direct cause.
When the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to maintain and toughen sanctions against Russia last month, a measure impossible for Trump to veto, it became all too clear his verbal incontinence is now matched by political impotence.
Those are not the kinds of words that Putin ever wants applied to him, and the measures he’s taken since are demonstrations that his government’s response will be calculated as well as firm.
Sunday was Russia’s Navy Day. Commander in Chief Putin, wearing a black suit, spoke from the presidential cutter in front of hundreds of Russian and Chinese sailors and navy officers on at least 50 warships and submarines participating in the fleet parade at St. Petersburg.
It was after the celebrations, which took place at Russia’s navy bases in Syria and Crimea as well, that Putin publicly ordered Washington to cut the U.S. diplomatic staff, including local hires as well as diplomats, by 755 posts.
That was Putin’s specific response to the new U.S. sanctions legislation. “Not only does the bill deprive the U.S. president of the right to control Washington’s decisions, it also declares Russia an enemy of the U.S. by law,” Markov, who is a member of the Russian Public Chamber, told The Daily Beast. “And it is unclear when, if ever this law will be canceled.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted on Sunday: “Russian citizens will be hit hardest by smaller US staff at the embassy. Wait time for a visa to travel to US will increase dramatically.” To which Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, quickly sought to shift blame for any massive inconvenience by claiming remaining employees should work faster, and suggesting failure to do so would be “deliberate sabotage.”
On Sunday evening, looking a bit tired, Putin gave an interview to Vesti, one of Russia’s most-watched television shows. Its host, Vladimir Solovyov, asked Putin if the decision to send hundreds of Americans out of Russia was well-planned and whether there were more measures at hand in the near future.
Putin referred to the congressional vote as an “unprovoked step to worsen Russian-American relations.” He said he had been waiting for a long time, hoping that relations with the U.S. eventually would improve.
“We hoped that the situation would change, but judging by everything, if it is going to change, then it won’t be soon,” Putin said. “I consider we have to show that we will not let this go unanswered.”
It is not clear if Putin was thinking of more concrete retaliatory measures. But rhetoric continues to heat up.
On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who represents the conservative wing of the Kremlin, published a video clip on his Facebook page. The song “Brest Fortress,” by a Kazakh band, alludes to the brave defenders of fortifications attacked by the Nazis when they began their invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
But, according to the Interfax news agency, the images in the video were Rogozin’s inspiration, and they are of much more recent vintage: Mikhail Gorbachev smiling with Ronald Reagan in Moscow, then showing George H.W. Bush around the Red Square. “Nobody invaded us,” says the song. “We opened all the gates ourselves, even for those who bit us to the bone.”
To protect Russia from aggression by the West, the hero (a quick image of Putin) turns into Brest Fortress, the song says. Why? “So that the occupiers’ horses would not destroy his piece of land with their hoofs,” the singer intones while the video features American tanks flying the Stars and Stripes. The video also has shots of the Donbas war in eastern Ukraine, where armed vehicles fly Russian flags: “One more fortress fighting.” The words in the song are “very precise,” Rogozin said.
Given that the Trump administration has become, as Markov put it, a “mad bull,” Russia “should not take any more measures against the bull but live out this year before [Russian] presidential elections peacefully—and win,” Markov said, meaning the victory of Vladimir Putin, of course.
With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey