US gets tough on Russia but is Trump on board?

But President Trump's mixed messages may undermine strategy against Putin's aggressive behaviour

WASHINGTON: America's most sweeping expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War may have seemed like a dramatic escalation in Washington's response to Moscow, but the groundwork for a more confrontational US posture had been taking shape for months - in plain sight.

While President Donald Trump's conciliatory rhetoric towards Moscow has dominated headlines, officials at the US State Department, Pentagon and White House made a series of lower-profile decisions over the past year to counter Russia around the world - from Afghanistan to North Korea to Syria.

The State Department earlier this month announced plans to provide anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to defend against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Mr Trump's predecessor , Mr Barack Obama, had declined to do so over fears of provoking Moscow.

In Syria last month, the US military killed or injured as many as 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked private military firm after they attacked US and US-backed forces.

The White House, meanwhile, firmly tied Russia to deadly strikes on civilians in Syria's eastern Ghouta region.

Both the White House and Pentagon's top policy documents unveiled in January portrayed Russia as an adversary that had returned to the centre of US national security planning.

That was all before the US said on Monday it would expel 60 Russian diplomats, joining governments across Europe in punishing the Kremlin for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain that they have blamed on Moscow. Russia has denied any involvement.

With Monday's announcement, however, it was unclear whether Mr Trump is promoting - or just acquiescing to - the tougher stance developed by his advisers and generals.

Mr Trump's critics sought to portray him as a reluctant actor in any get-tough approach to Russia.

"It is disturbing how grudgingly he came to this decision," said US Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Still, the Trump administration's actions run counter to widespread perception, fuelled by the President's own statements, that Mr Trump has softened America's stance towards Russian President Vladimir Putin amid a US investigation into Moscow's meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Regardless of the tough actions, the inconsistent messages may undermine Washington's strategy to deter Moscow's aggressive behaviour, experts warn.

"US signalling is all undercut by Mr Trump's lack of seriousness about Russia," said Mr Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Just last Tuesday, Mr Trump congratulated Mr Putin on his re-election, drawing sharp criticism from fellow Republicans.

But in another sign of mixed messages, Mr Trump two days later named Mr John Bolton, a strident Russia hawk, to become his national security adviser.

Although the nerve agent attack was the official trigger for the US expulsions, Trump administration officials warned that the attack should not be viewed in isolation, citing a series of destabilising and aggressive actions by Moscow.

In Afghanistan, Mr Trump's top commander on the ground accused Russia again last week of arming Taleban militants.

And less than two weeks ago, the administration imposed the first sanctions against Russia for election meddling and cyber attacks, though it held off on punishing business magnates close to Mr Putin.

US officials and experts widely expect ties to further deteriorate, at least in the near term, and caution that Russia's next steps could extend far beyond retaliation against American diplomats.

"The risk of escalation doesn't just come from tit-for-tat punishments," said Mr Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Centre think tank in Washington, citing the potential for more aggressive moves from the Middle East to the cyber realm.

US officials have said the Trump administration still seeks to avoid a complete rupture in bilateral relations.

One official said Russian cooperation is still vital to address thorny issues such as North Korea and Iran. - REUTERS