Before expulsions, a brick-by-brick hardening of U.S. stance toward Moscow

By Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – 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 U.S. posture had been taking shape for months — in plain sight.

While President Donald Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Moscow has dominated headlines, officials at the U.S. 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 in March announced plans to provide anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to defend against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Trump’s predecessor as president, Barack Obama, had declined to do so over fears of provoking Moscow.

In Syria last month, the U.S. military killed or injured as many as 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked private military firm after they attacked U.S. and U.S.-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 center of U.S. national security planning.

That was all before the United States 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 Trump is promoting – or just acquiescing to – the tougher U.S. stance developed by his advisers and generals.

Trump’s critics sought to portray him as a reluctant actor in any get-tough approach to Russia, even though one senior administration official described him as involved “from the beginning” in the expulsions of Russian diplomats.

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

Still, the Trump administration’s actions run counter to widespread perception, fueled by the president’s own statements, that Trump has softened America’s stance toward Russian President Vladimir Putin amid a U.S. investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Regardless of the tough actions, the inconsistent messaging may undermine Washington’s strategy to deter Moscow’s aggressive behavior, experts warn.

“U.S. signaling is all undercut by Trump’s lack of seriousness about Russia,” said Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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

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

DOWNWARD SPIRAL

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

In Afghanistan, Trump’s top commander on the ground accused Russia again last week of arming Taliban militants.

On North Korea, Trump himself told Reuters in January that Russia was helping Pyongyang evade United Nations sanctions.

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

U.S. 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 Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, citing the potential for more aggressive moves from the Middle East to the cyber realm.

U.S. officials have said the Trump administration still seeks to avoid a complete rupture in bilateral relations. One official said Russian cooperation was still sought to address thorny diplomatic issues like North Korea and Iran.

(Additional reporting by John Walcott; editing by Mary Milliken and G Crosse)

Iran stages pro-government rallies, cleric urges firm punishment for protest leaders

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied across Iran on Friday, swearing allegiance to the clerical establishment and accusing arch enemy the United States of instigating the largest anti-government protests in nearly a decade, state TV reported.

Tehran’s Friday prayer leader called on authorities to deal “firmly” with those responsible for igniting over a week of illegal rallies, in which 22 people were killed and more than 1,000 people were arrested, according to Iranian officials.

“But those ordinary Iranians who were deceived by these American-backed rioters should be dealt with based on Islamic clemency,” cleric Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Tehran university, TV reported.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

The anti-government rallies erupted on December 28 in Iran’s holy Shi’ite city of Mashhad after the government announced plans to increase fuel prices and dismantle monthly cash handout to lower-income Iranians.

The protests spread to more than 80 cities and rural towns, staged by thousands of young and working class Iranians angry about official corruption, unemployment and a deepening gap between rich and poor.

The authorities have produced no evidence of U.S. involvement in the protests, which lacked a unifying leader.

GUARDS QUELLED UNREST

But in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Iran’s statements that external influences fomented the unrest were not groundless and Washington used any possible method to destabilize governments it disliked.

He added that U.S. calls for an extraordinary meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the turmoil in Iran interfered with the country’s sovereignty, news agency Interfax said. The Council will meet on Friday at 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) to discuss Iran, Council president Kazakhstan has said.

Residents contacted by Reuters in various cities said the protests had shown sign of abating since Thursday, after the establishment intensified a crackdown on the protesters by dispatching Revolutionary Guards forces to several provinces.

Iran’s elite Guards and its affiliated Basij militia suppressed the country’s 2009 unrest over alleged election fraud, in which dozens of pro-reform Iranians were killed.

Iranian officials said the protests were the result of foreign instigation and mocked U.S. President Donald Trump’s support of protesters against what he called a “brutal and corrupt” establishment.

On Friday rallies, protesters chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, carrying pictures of Iran’s top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and waved Iranian flags.

Television footage of rallies in several cities showed people chanting “We support Imam Khamenei … We will not leave him alone in his fight against enemies”.

“Demonstrators demand the punishment of those behind foreign-linked riots which insulted religion and our authorities,” state television reported, referring to the anti-government protests in which social media footage showed protesters tearing down pictures of Khamenei.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

UNITED FRONT

To allay tension, the government has suspended its plans to cut cash handouts and increase fuel prices.

“There are workers who say they have not received their salaries for months … These problems should be resolved,” Khatami said, according to state TV.

Fearing that further unrest could undermine the Islamic republic altogether, Iran’s faction-ridden political elite has displayed a united front.

But Khamenei and his hardline allies have criticized Rouhani for failing to revive the economy after most sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016 under a nuclear deal reached between Tehran and major powers aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear program.

Rouhani secured the deal in 2015, raising hopes of better economic times among many Iranians, but discontent has since risen over the lack of broad improvement in living standards.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean)