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Former U.S. Ambassador To NATO Discusses Russia's Expulsion Of U.S. Diplomats


Today Russia has responded to the expulsion of 60 of its diplomats from the U.S. and dozens more from allied countries. Russia now says it will match that number country by country and shut down the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg.


This all started with the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. They were both hospitalized after they were exposed to a nerve agent, and U.K. security officials think it's highly likely Russia was behind the attack. Now, here to talk more about the state of play is former U.S. ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter. Ambassador Hunter, welcome to the program.

ROBERT HUNTER: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: You have said the most important thing of what you've seen so far is the solidarity shown by EU and NATO countries in this case in expelling Russian diplomats. Was that solidarity in question?

HUNTER: Absolutely. Mr. Putin has been nibbling away at the Western alliance, at people in Europe to try to separate them out from Britain in this case and also from the United States in order to see the point at which we might say enough is enough. Well, on this case, we finally did say enough is enough and sent a message back to him not in something like declaring war or increasing troops but the kind of thing that tried and true you do when there's a diplomatic spat, which is to send people home.

CORNISH: They've replied in kind. What's the practical effect of Russia closing our consulate in St. Petersburg and expelling these diplomats?

HUNTER: Well, St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, and a lot of people will miss it. But in effect, they have chosen to respond in kind, which is what in the spy business is always done. Question is what we do next. But the most important thing for us in the West is to do it with solidarity so that Putin can't pick us apart because a number of the allies don't want to see a new Cold War. They don't accept everything we and the Brits are saying about what the Russians have been up to in general.

CORNISH: To that end, could this have a meaningful impact on U.S. intelligence operations?

HUNTER: Oh, I think probably marginally. But of course it also impacts what the Russians are able to do in this country. I hope we have redundant capabilities. And I'm not even sure that intelligence capabilities are what are needed right now. It is a solid piece of policy, coherence and working together within the Western alliance to tell Mr. Putin enough is enough. Yes, we're going to have to deal with you. You're going to have to deal with us. But let's get back to regular order because we're not going to allow you anymore just to play this nibble game.

CORNISH: What do you consider regular order? I mean, this poisoning was just one factor - right? - in this relationship. There's also Russia's actions in the Crimean Peninsula, involvement in Syria. Are diplomatic moves or sanctions enough?

HUNTER: Well, also they've been doing things like cyberattacks. They have been threatening countries with cutting off oil. At some point, we have to meet step for step if they do it. But at some point, grownups on both sides need to talk to one another and say, look; we understand that Russia is going to be a major power. You also have to understand you're not going to be a superpower. You're still of very limited capabilities. We would like to see a constructive relationship, but we can't start that until, Mr. Putin, you stop things like interfering in others' politics like you interfered in our elections. You've got to show that this fall, you're not going to interfere in the American elections. Then we can sit down and talk about the future. But as of now, no.

CORNISH: Robert Hunter, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HUNTER: Thank you.

CORNISH: Robert Hunter is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.