The West's Response to Russia After Skripal Attack Is Too Mild

(Bloomberg View) -- The coordinated expulsion of nearly 140 Russian diplomats by more than 20 countries is no small thing. It's probably a stronger response to his latest provocation than President Vladimir Putin was expecting, and you'd have to go back to the height of the Cold War to find a comparable Western reaction. Even so, it's too mild.

The move follows the poisoning in Britain of former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a banned nerve agent that U.K. authorities say could have come only from a state weapons facility in Russia. British officials say the attack exposed as many as 130 people to the chemical, and 50 needed hospital treatment.

The attack on Skripal and his daughter was reckless and outrageous -- and the expulsions are big enough to demonstrate that the West is affronted and takes the matter seriously. But they're unlikely to hurt enough to make Putin behave. Russia's president is used to mere expressions of dismay. He exploits them to tell Russians they are being belittled, blamed and victimized by hypocritical and bellicose Western powers. He has done this throughout the conflicts in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.

What more can be done? To be sure, the U.S. has led Britain's allies in expelling a large number of diplomats -- but in other ways its response has been muted. President Donald Trump has conspicuously failed to speak out forcefully on the subject. He has also said the government doesn't plan to implement a toughened U.S. sanctions law, passed last year in response to Russia's election interference.

Europe is even more hesitant. The U.S. accounts for 60 of the orders to leave; several European Union members have declined to expel anybody, and the numbers for France and Germany, at four apiece, also look meek. Europe's financial and commercial ties with Russia remain close, and its governments are unwilling to put them at risk.

To change Putin's behavior, this is a risk the West must take. There are many ways to dial up the pressure, including stronger enforcement of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and moves to block Russia's abuse of Interpol (which it uses to harass opponents). Magnitsky-type acts that freeze assets and ban visas for Russian officials implicated in corruption and human-rights violations should be adopted more widely. In developing these tools, the U.S. and Europe should work closely together.

Efforts are also needed to counter the domestic propaganda that Putin has used to increase his popularity and build anti-Western sentiment. Reaching out to Russians in big cities and neighboring countries, where dissent exists and could be encouraged, the U.S. and its allies should make it clear that the cause of their complaints is Putin and his helpers, not Russia at large.  

The West shouldn't want conflict with Russia. On a range of issues, it can gain from Russian cooperation and should seek it on the basis of mutual interest. That kind of cooperation needn't be excluded, and might actually be advanced, by firmly resisting the criminal tendencies of Putin's government.

--Editors: Therese Raphael, Clive Crook

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