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A U.S.-Russia Low Point After U.S. Diplomats Expelled

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is not going to wait around any longer for the U.S.-Russian relationship to improve. Over the weekend, Russia announced that 755 of the more than 1,000 employees at the U.S. embassy in Russia are being expelled. In an interview with Russian state television yesterday, President Putin said the move was an answer to the new U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Ambassador Daniel Fried is with us now in our studios. He's a former diplomat who coordinated Russia sanctions for the Obama administration. Ambassador Fried, welcome back to the program.

DANIEL FRIED: Good morning.

MARTIN: Does this have an eerie sense of deja vu for you?

FRIED: Oh, does it ever.

MARTIN: Not in a good way.

FRIED: Takes me back to the 1980s when we were doing mutual expulsions. And I do recall that the 1980s ended rather badly for Moscow. Why they would want to another round is beyond me. That's something for them to explain.

MARTIN: What's the upshot, practically speaking, of losing all these diplomats in Russia?

FRIED: Well, I don't know how many we will actually lose. We don't have anywhere near a thousand Americans in Russia now. I think we have something just over 300 direct American hires.

MARTIN: So everyone else is a local hire, local Russian working for the U.S.?

FRIED: That's right. We'll have to - right now, I bet the Russia desk at State Department and other people are going through the numbers and trying to decide what we can do in response, if anything, and what the impact on our operations will be. But more to the point, it shows that the Russians are driving things toward the early 1980s when we were in a period of confrontation. And that ended, as I said, badly for Russia. Right now, beyond just the short-term response, the question for us is, what is our Russia policy? What do we do with Putin's aggression more generally?

MARTIN: U.S.-Russian relations were marked by a whole lot of tension and mistrust under the administration that you served, the Obama administration. How does this compare? Are things worse today?

FRIED: Well, things have been going in a downward trajectory, and that's mainly because of Russian actions. President Obama, like President Bush before him, tried to reach out to the Russians, but neither president was willing to sacrifice either other countries or our values on the altar of better relations with Russia.

The pattern seems to be repeating under the Trump administration. President Trump has tried in his own way to reach out to the Russians I guess. And it's not getting anywhere because the Russian preconditions for good relations are those that no American can accept.

MARTIN: So what happens now? I mean what is - what should be, rather, the U.S. strategy when it comes to Russia?

FRIED: Well, we do need a strategy. There's one that the administration is preparing. I hear that it's a pretty good one. Any U.S. strategy toward Russia will have an element of resisting Russian aggression, an element of looking for areas of common interest where we can find them - but (laughter) don't expect too much - and a third area of looking to the future. That'll be the policy. The question, though, is not whether we can put together a policy but whether President Trump will actually embrace it.

MARTIN: Russian deputy foreign minister said yesterday that, quote, "if the U.S. decides to move forward, deterioration will happen, that we will respond in kind; we will retaliate." How does this end?

FRIED: Well, they would say that. We need - we shouldn't wring our hands and obsess about what the Russians are going to do to us. We should start thinking about what we ourselves are going to do, particularly after Putin's aggression, interfering in our elections, interfering in the French elections, invading Ukraine. We need to be working with the Europeans on a common policy. If we do that, if we remember who we are - the leaders of the free world - then things will end well.

MARTIN: Daniel Fried is a former diplomat who coordinated U.S. sanctions against Russia. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

FRIED: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.