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Why Did The U.S. Decide Now To Act Against Russia?

NOEL KING, HOST:

Nearly two dozen nations have now joined together to expel more than 130 Russian officials from their countries. President Trump ordered 60 Russian diplomats to leave U.S. soil. He gave them seven days. Now, this is all in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K. London says Russia is behind it. British Prime Minister Theresa May took the expulsions as a victory for the U.K. Here she is speaking to Parliament yesterday.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: This is the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history. And together we have sent a message that we will not tolerate Russia's continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values.

KING: All right, that is the U.K The big question is, is Washington's relationship with Moscow changing? Michael Anton is on the line with us now. He's deputy assistant to the president on the National Security Council.

Welcome to the show, sir.

MICHAEL ANTON: Thank you.

KING: So why did the U.S. decide to act against Russia now?

ANTON: Precisely because of the poisoning in Salisbury, England. And that's an outrageous and reckless act. You can, you know, imagine it's bad enough if it had merely affected its intended target, but this was an indiscriminate attack that endangered the lives of men, women and children who had absolutely nothing to do with whatever grievance the Russian government may or may not have against its intended target, something that no government can tolerate on its own soil and that no nation can tolerate in the behavior of another nation. So it's entirely appropriate that the nations of the world come together to condemn this action.

KING: I wonder, though - President Trump did call Russian President Vladimir Putin last week to congratulate him on his election win. He didn't mention the nerve agent attack. What changed in that time?

ANTON: Nothing changed in that time. This is something that we've been in consultation with our allies on since the attack and also have been considering in the interagency process as a government. As President Trump has said many, many times, he doesn't like to telegraph his actions or tell his adversaries or potential adversaries or other governments what he's going to do in advance. So I think it's entirely natural that he wouldn't discuss private, secret deliberations within the U.S. government with a foreign leader if the - if that foreign leader is going to be or is likely to become an affected party when the U.S. government and the president makes a decision.

I think the second fundamental reason is that while the president has taken very tough actions against Russia since becoming president - this is only one in a - it's just only the latest in a string of actions - he's tried to maintain cordial relations at the leader-to-leader level in the hope - not to say expectation, but in the hope that relations between the two countries can improve down the road and that the leader-to-leader channel will be the most important channel through which to improve those relations if the Russian government opts to change its behavior and seek better relations with the West.

KING: I wonder, though - you know, some people have said the U.S. has not been tough enough on Russia. Yesterday's action, coordinated with other countries - obviously, a very serious move. Is this an attempt to sort of make up for what some people have said is a position of not going hard enough on Russia?

ANTON: No, not at all. That position is just not borne out by the facts. It's hard to know where people are coming from. If you think back to what this administration has done, first of all, it has not eased any of the existing sanctions or measures taken against the Russian government at all, and it has added several new ones. We closed - no - you know, when this administration took office, the Russians had four operating consulates. They now have two. We closed one yesterday, and we closed one in San Francisco last fall. We set - reduced cap on Russian diplomatic personnel in the country at the same time last fall. That's in addition and prior to the 60 named expulsions that we did yesterday. And there's a whole range of things that this administration has done that there - that are new, that were not done by the previous administration, and even a few that were long-contemplated by the previous administration that the previous administration simply couldn't make up its mind to do.

So it's simply inaccurate and really unfair to say that this administration has gone easy on Russia. It is true that this administration came into office and still holds the belief that it would like to see better cooperation between the United States and Russia because it identifies areas of common interest. But we're responding to the facts as we find them and to Russian behavior as we find it. And as of now, it's - thus far, it doesn't seem like the Russians want to reciprocate that wish for better relations. They want to just keep being aggressive and reckless in terms of the way they interact with the West.

KING: And if they continue to be reckless and aggressive, what next?

ANTON: Well, as I said earlier, the president doesn't like to telegraph or preview his actions. If further action becomes necessary, he will take that action. And he will, in the time between now and then, hold his counsel.

KING: The president just picked John Bolton to serve as head of the National Security Council - excuse me. Bolton is known as a hawk. Do you think he's liable to lead this President into a more aggressive stance on, let's just say, Russia?

ANTON: Well, I am going to point you to Ambassador Bolton's own words when he described how he would view his role as national security adviser. He's emphasized that he does have his own views but that he intends to, as national security adviser, set those views aside, act as an honest broker in the interagency process, and make his main job to be the implementer of the president's vision and the president's policies and decisions.

KING: Michael Anton serves on the National Security Council. Thanks so much for your time.

ANTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.