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Poisoning Of Russian Ex-Spy Sets Off Diplomatic Expulsions

NOEL KING, HOST:

Russia says it will expel 60 diplomats from the U.S. And this morning, Russia continues to expel diplomats from other countries as well. Now this comes as a reaction to the U.S. and other countries expelling Russian diplomats from their soil. The U.S. expelled 60 Russian officials this week. This dispute started after a former Russian spy was poisoned by a nerve agent in Britain. The U.K. says Russia was involved. Now, some see all of this as evidence that U.S.-Russian relations may be hitting a troubling low point. Joining us now is Alexander Vershbow. He served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under President George W. Bush. Ambassador, good morning.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: Good morning.

KING: All right. So now that the U.S. and Russia have kicked out dozens of each other's diplomats, what happens next?

VERSHBOW: Well, I think the Russians - their reaction was - it was predictable. And they, I think, are trying to achieve symmetry in the hopes that this will draw a line under this affair. And I'm not sure what the administration will do. The St. Petersburg consulate, which was closed, is a bit more important than the one that we closed in Seattle. But overall, it is tit-for-tat. And I expect this will be seen as the end of this retaliation.

KING: Well, after Russia said it was going to expel the U.S. diplomats, the State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that the U.S., quote, "reserves the right to respond." That doesn't sound so much like a de-escalation.

VERSHBOW: Well, I think they're leaving their options open. I actually think that there's a justification for going farther than just expulsions. Keep in mind that the personnel expelled, sooner or later, can be replaced.

KING: Yeah.

VERSHBOW: This is not meant to be a permanent reduction. So if we really want to hurt the Russians for the - this kind of outrageous behavior, we should do more. And I think targeting some of the cronies of President Putin, who have benefited from this sort of aggressive behavior, would be warranted. But so far, the administration, while not ruling that out, seems to want to hold the line with this expulsion.

KING: When you say targeting Putin's cronies, are you talking about slapping sanctions on individuals?

VERSHBOW: Yes. The legislation, passed by the Congress last summer, has various authorities to impose targeted sanctions on individuals who form part of President Putin's close entourage, the big oligarchs who have benefited from his kleptocracy. And I think hitting those people in their pocketbooks, denying them the right to use the international banking system, to send their kids to private schools in Britain and other countries would have more of a dramatic effect than just expelling diplomats and spies who can be replaced.

KING: Do you think this is a new low in recent U.S.-Russia relations?

VERSHBOW: Well, they were pretty low to begin with. So...

KING: Yeah.

VERSHBOW: ...This wasn't much farther we could go. But I think it is one of the lowest points in relations going back, I think, to the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. And what's different this time around is that you have a leader in Russia who does have popular support - we can't deny that - who basically wants to tear up the international rulebook that's governed our relations since the end of World War II and since the end of the Cold War. He's determined to reestablish domination over his neighbors, to interfere in our politics. And he thinks through the...

KING: A lot...

VERSHBOW: ...Plausible deniability that's...

KING: A lot to be seen. Ambassador Vershbow, we've got to leave it there. Thank you so much.

VERSHBOW: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.