It seems like only yesterday Donald Trump was buttering up Vladimir Putin. His congratulations on Putin’s victory and failure to mention the nerve agent attack in Salisbury sent the foreign policy establishment in Washington into high dudgeon. Now the administration has expelled 60 Russian diplomats and shuttered the Russian consulate in Seattle. This is only, top administration officials say, ‘the first step.’ The government could also go on to release nasty details about the financial holding that Putin has squirrelled away abroad, a move, incidentally, that could provoke retaliation against Trump by the Kremlin. What gives?
No matter what Trump may tell Putin, and no matter what Trump may aspire to when it comes to Russia, the cold hard truth is that he has constructed a team of hawks that keeps getting more hawkish. Mike Pompeo, who is slated to become Secretary of State, breathes fire when it comes to foreign adversaries. Of John Bolton nothing needs to be said. Add in mounting impatience in Congress, where Democrats now vie with neocons such as Lindsey Graham to outdo each in their ardor to denounce Moscow, and you have a recipe for going Mano-a-Mano with the Kremlin.
For Putin, a bad hombre who is embarking upon a fresh term, the course will be clear. Hostilities between Moscow and the West are likely to reach a level not seen since the Stalin era, when the Soviet despot detected plots and conspiracies in every nook and cranny of his sprawling empire. For Trump, who desperately wanted to usher in a new era of peace and freedom with Russia, recent events must leave a bitter tang. Anthony Trollope remarked that he conceived of Barchester Towers while strolling in the purlieus of Salisbury Cathedral. Now Salisbury has given conception to what amounts, in one form or other, to a renewed confrontation between Russia and the West that does not seem likely to go away any time soon.