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Kremlin Plans To Retaliate After Expulsion Of Russian Diplomats


Now to Moscow to hear about the Kremlin's reaction to the expulsion of more than a hundred of its diplomats from the U.S. and two dozen other countries. The coordinated move is the West's response to the nerve agent attack on a former Russian intelligence officer in Britain. The Kremlin denies any involvement in the poisoning. Now it's portraying the expulsions as an American attempt to constrain Russia, as NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Monday was a dark day for Russia beginning with the death toll from a fire in a Siberian shopping center and ending with the biggest ever expulsion of Russian diplomats. President Vladimir Putin has since been dealing with public grief and anger over the fire. The Kremlin has vowed Putin will personally choose an appropriate response to the expulsions once he's had a chance to consider his options. In the meantime, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been the highest-ranking official to comment on the diplomatic crisis.


SERGEY LAVROV: (Through interpreter) We know for sure that this is the result of colossal pressure, colossal blackmail which has unfortunately become Washington's main instrument on the international stage.

KIM: Lavrov said the coordinated actions which he said was led by the United States is proof there are only a few truly independent countries left in the world. The decision by more than 20 nations, many of them NATO members, was intended to send a unified message to Moscow about the first use of nerve agent since World War II. Instead, it seems to have reinforced the Kremlin's narrative that the U.S. is encircling Russia and that only Putin can preserve its sovereignty. That's been a recurring theme of his presidency.



KIM: "The containment of Russia has not succeeded," Putin said during this month's state of the nation speech. For the past 15 years, he said, the U.S. has tried to entangle Russia in an arms race, squeeze out unilateral advantages and strangle the Russian economy with sanctions. Despite Putin's good personal chemistry with President Trump and, before that, with George W. Bush, many Russians are convinced the U.S. is selfishly pursuing its geopolitical agenda. A video statement by U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman following the expulsions did little to dispel that belief.


JON HUNTSMAN: The United States is ready to cooperate and forge a better relationship between our two countries, but that will only be possible when Russia chooses to become a more responsible partner.

KIM: The United States and Russia have already been through a bruising diplomatic tit-for-tat. President Obama responded to election interference in the last days of his administration by expelling 35 Russians and closing two Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S. Over the summer, Putin ordered the U.S. to slash its diplomatic staff in Russia by more than 700, reducing the issuance of American visas to a trickle.

In response, the Trump administration closed Russia's consulate in San Francisco and, on Monday, also shuttered the one in Seattle. It's hard to predict how the Kremlin will respond, but the U.S. still has three consulates outside of Moscow. Alexander Kramarenko, Moscow's deputy ambassador to London until last year, says he expects Putin to hit back hard.

ALEXANDER KRAMARENKO: We could ultimately go down to complete zero - I mean, (laughter) no diplomatic relationship at all.

KIM: So far, he says, the U.S. and Russia have not hit rock-bottom, but he thinks the potential for an armed conflict between the two countries is increasingly possible.

KRAMARENKO: We've been declared economic war, financial war - I mean sanctions - and information war. The only thing left (laughter) is conventional war.

KIM: Kramarenko says the only reason for optimism is that nuclear war between Russia and the United States is still unthinkable. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.