Around 115 Russian diplomats have been expelled around the world. Was this a humiliating own goal for Vladimir Putin? Or is it playing right into his hands. Two columnists argue opposite sides of the argument.
It's an own goal
Vladimir Putin's attempt to expose divisions in the West has backfired spectacularly, leaving Russia isolated, writes Con Coughlin of the Daily Telegraph
For all Vladimir Putin's bluster about retaliating against the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats the world has ever seen, the Russian leader is soon to discover just how limited his options have become.
In my opinion, Mr Putin is more of an opportunist than a strategist in terms of his engagement with the world.
Rather than having a coherent, well-considered plan for rebuilding Russia's strength after decades of decline, he spends his time looking for ways to make a nuisance of himself.
Disruption, not constructive engagement, is the name of Mr Putin's game. This is evident in the way he has behaved in recent years, from stirring up trouble in eastern Ukraine to meddling in the American elections.
No doubt he and his Kremlin cronies calculated that by using a deadly nerve agent to assassinate a former Russian intelligence officer on British soil, they would be able to test the strength of the Western alliance at a time when Britain and the rest of Europe were supposedly obsessed with the Brexit negotiations.
The first chemical weapons attack in Europe since the Second World War certainly has all the hallmarks of a Putin-style operation - test the enemy's responses while denying any involvement.
If, by authorising the Salisbury attack - and the jury is still out on the true extent of Russian state complicity - Mr Putin was hoping to expose divisions in the West's security infrastructure, then he must now be sorely disappointed.
Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson deserve enormous credit for orchestrating the biggest display of European solidarity of the modern era, with countries as far apart as Canada, Hungary and Australia joining the worldwide condemnation of Russia's grossly irresponsible involvement.
Mr Putin, by contrast, finds himself isolated and friendless.
It is a measure of how bad things are for Moscow that it cannot even count on the tepid support of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, behaved more like a guest presenter for the Kremlin's RT television station than the leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition.
Which begs the question, what can Mr Putin do now by way of retaliation for the most humiliating, and self-inflicted, episode in the modern history of Russian diplomacy?
Yesterday the Kremlin's PR machine was full of its usual bombast, promising to "respond harshly" to the expulsions of 115 Russian diplomats globally.
Many of them are covert operatives for the country's security service - hence Mrs May's boast to the Commons on Monday that the co-ordinated global action had "dismantled" Russia's overseas spying operation.
The Russians can, of course, respond with tit-for-tat expulsions, which will no doubt begin in the next few days.
Mr Putin could also, I suppose, ask his friends in rogue states such as Iran and Syria for support, although I doubt either country has any credible diplomatic assets that are worth bringing to the table.
North Korea, whose nuclear weapons programme is said to have benefited from Russian technical help, is another possibility, although Kim Jong-un, the country's dictator, seems more preoccupied with trying to avoid a military confrontation with the United States at the moment.
There has been speculation that Russia might escalate its aggressive stance towards the West by embarking on yet another act of military adventurism by, for example, threatening one of the Baltic states, such as Estonia.
Another option would be to launch revenge cyber attacks in the hope of disabling critical infrastructure, or launching another wave of fake news aimed at undermining the credibility of Western governments.
The trouble for Mr Putin, though, is that the rest of the world has not only wised up to his tactics; it has already made provision to defend itself against further acts of Russian recklessness.
Russia's aggression towards Georgia and Ukraine has resulted in Nato beefing up its defences in the eastern Europe and the Baltics.
As for the Kremlin's more clandestine operations, these activities are now so much in the public domain that most people have heard, for example, about the St Petersburg troll factory, with its army of internet bots pumping out an endless diet of fake news.
In the back of Mr Putin's mind, meanwhile, will be the concern that, if he overreacts, his actions could jeopardise the football World Cup, which his country is due to host this summer.
The Russian statesman likes nothing better than to take centre stage at major global events - it is his way of showing Russia's oppressed masses that he enjoys equal status with the world's other major leaders.
It would, therefore, be an embarrassment of monumental proportions for President Putin if the rest of the world decided to boycott the tournament, a sanction that will undoubtedly receive serious consideration if Russia is found guilty of any more acts of vile skulduggery.
Mr Putin, it might appear, is stymied.
Expulsion of diplomats plays into Putin's hands
The coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats from the West is a sign of a united front - but it can also play into the Kremlin's hands, writes Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post.
On Monday morning the United States, Canada and the European Union carried out a coordinated mass expulsion of Russian diplomats, responding to Moscow's alleged role in the March 4 poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.
The Trump administration expelled 60 Russian intelligence and diplomatic officers in New York and Washington and ordered the shuttering of the Russian consulate in Seattle.
At least 14 other NATO and European allies joined in, ejecting more than 100 Russian diplomats in total.
It was the strongest sign yet of American solidarity with Britain — and its allies in Europe — in the face of apparent Russian misdeeds. Under President Donald Trump, that's noteworthy.
Over the past year, Trump's apparent personal softness toward Moscow and indifference toward NATO and the European Union led many in Europe to question his commitment to the transatlantic relationship.
Just last week, he congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection without mentioning Moscow's apparent use of a military-grade chemical weapon on British soil.
But Monday's move marked a profound shift in tone.
"Today's actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia's ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America's national security," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
"With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences.
"To the Russian government, we say when you attack our friend you will face serious consequences," said a senior Trump administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to brief my colleagues.
"As we have continually stressed to Moscow, the door to dialogue is open," the official added, but Russia must "cease its recklessly aggressive behaviour."
Boris Johnson tweeted "Today's extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever & will help defend our shared security. Russia cannot break international rules with impunity."
The common front against Russia is welcome news among Washington's divided European friends. Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow who has criticised Trump's approach toward Russia in the past, supported the decision and suggested it could prove a genuine blow to Russia's intelligence-gathering operations.
Others argued that the expulsions would ultimately be little more than window-dressing.
"Great you rearranged the careers of a bunch of diplomats and maybe even spies, but Putin and his guys aren't going to care unless you (expletive) with their money in London, New York and Barcelona," a senior EU law enforcement official told BuzzFeed News.
McFaul agreed that a more effective response would involve further sanctions on Russians with investments and interests in the West.
"These expulsions and closure of the consulate reinforce the reality of a relationship that continues on a downward spiral," Angela Stent, a former intelligence officer who focused on Russia in the George W. Bush administration, said to my colleagues.
"The Kremlin will surely retaliate, leaving even fewer areas where the United States and Russia can work together. What a change from the president's congratulatory call to Vladimir Putin last week."
Indeed, Russian officials wasted no time firing back. They branded the measures "obsequiousness" toward Britain, lamented the "escalation" of tensions by the West and denied once more their role in the poisoning incident.
A spokesman for Putin made clear that the Kremlin would probably respond with reciprocal expulsions.
Russia's state-backed media, meanwhile, circulated alternate theories pinning the attack on the United States.
Russia in USA tweeted "US administration ordered the closure of the Russian Consulate in Seattle @GK_Seattle. What US Consulate General would you close in @Russia, if it was up to you to decide."
Putin, who derives much of his legitimacy from his ability to rival the West, is only too happy to play this game.
A resurgence of Cold War tit-for-tat expulsions and the thickening atmosphere of distrust between Russia and the West boosts his image in the mind of Russian nationalists.
It "helps to reconfirm a narrative that Putin has been pushing since 2012 about the US as a hostile actor," McFaul told us.
That's necessary given the actual weaknesses of the Russian state. The country's economy is smaller than that of Canada. Its entire military budget, noted Time's Ian Bremmer, is smaller than the extra amount Trump wants Congress to add to US defence spending.
And although Putin won an election he was never going to lose, his hold on power is not as strong as it may seem.
Putin "knows that, no matter how many votes he ends up with, vast numbers of Russians are dissatisfied with their lot," Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, wrote in a recent column for The Washington Post.
"Nine of 10 consider corruption a big problem; just as many feel they are unable to do anything about it; and a shrinking number believe he will address it seriously. For a leader thought to have profited from foreign adventures, Putin's support for specific policies has also started to look shaky. Polls show an astonishing 49 percent of Russians want out of Syria."
And so, on a certain level, the current round of expulsions works to Putin's advantage.
This month, the Russian president's campaign spokesman even thanked Britain for helping the Kremlin meet its voter-turnout target of 70 per cent.
"We were pressured exactly at the moment when we needed to mobilise," said Andrey Kondrashov, adding that, in a moment of confrontation with a foreign adversary, "the Russian people unite around the centre of power. And the centre of power is certainly Putin."
"The expulsion of diplomats strengthens the bond between Putin and his constituency, because it enhances the besieged fortress complex," Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin tweeted. "A move against mafia state assets would, on the other hand, damage this bond, because Russians have no sympathy for London-based kleptocrats."
Such a move may come; European officials and the Trump administration are plotting next steps. No matter what, though, signs point to further troubles ahead.
"The differences between us are vast and hinge on principles of European security," Vygaudas Usackas, the outgoing EU ambassador in Moscow, wrote in a letter published in Britain's Observer last November.
He warned that things would not improve once Putin won a fresh mandate for power: "Over the course of a six-year presidential term that will follow, it seems probable that the current clash of world views between Moscow and the West will continue."
- Daily Telegraph and Washington Post