The US decision to shut several Russian diplomatic facilities is the latest blow to tortured ties and despite Donald Trump’s pledge to improve relations with Vladimir Putin. Tensions have spiralled since he entered the White House. From alleged Russian election meddling to the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, here are some of the most contentious issues facing the two sides.
Russia and the US election
The promise of a fresh start to the relationship has been eclipsed by allegations of collusion between Russia and members of Trump’s election campaign team. US intelligence agencies have accused Putin of orchestrating a sweeping hacking and influence campaign to tip the November 2016 vote in Trump’s favour, prompting several investigations, including one led by the FBI. In the waning days of his tenure, Barack Obama hit out at Russia by expelling 35 diplomats and closing two of Moscow’s diplomatic compounds in the US. The Kremlin initially did not retaliate but when Congress passed new sanctions tying Trump’s hands, Moscow ordered the US to cut its diplomatic mission by 755 staff by September.
Ukraine and sanctions
Ties between Moscow and Washington had already slumped to their lowest point since the Cold War long before the furore over the US election erupted. The West began slapping punishing sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, sparking a revenge embargo from Moscow against agricultural products.
More than three years of fighting between government troops and Russian-backed rebels continues in Ukraine’s east and a political resolution appears far from near. Trump set Kiev on edge by appearing to waver in his support for the Ukrainian government. Since then, the US has toughened its tone and beefed up sanctions in June. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said the US was “actively reviewing” Obama’s refusal to supply vital weaponry to Kiev, but Trump has held off on a decision that would ratchet up tensions with Moscow.
The Syrian standoff
With Russia and the US on opposite sides over the conflict in Syria, Trump infuriated Moscow by ordering a missile strike in April on the forces of its ally Bashar Al Assad over an alleged chemical weapons attack. At the time, the US president said it was “certainly possible” that Moscow knew about the alleged chemical attack. The US air force on June 18 shot down a Syrian regime warplane in a move denounced by Russia as “an act of aggression”. However, while Trump’s actions suggested the US could take on a more assertive role, Washington has still managed to find common ground with Moscow. In July the two countries struck a deal for a ceasefire in southern Syria close to the borders of Israel and Jordan.
North Korea’s missile test
Another pressing issue for both sides is the current spike in tensions over North Korea after Pyongyang launched a string of provocative missile tests. Trump has implied he may be lining up a pre-emptive strike by saying that “all options” remain on the table in dealing with the situation. Moscow — which has relatively warm ties with Pyongyang — has warned the US against any use of force or trying to impose fresh sanctions on North Korea. Instead, Russia has teamed up with China to push a proposal that would see North Korea hold off from further weapons tests if the US agrees to halt military exercises around the peninsula.
Tensions at Nato
Moscow has long viewed any expansion of the Nato military alliance as a sign of aggression and has repeatedly denounced a build-up of troops in the Baltic region as upsetting the balance of power. The US-led alliance has denied any territorial ambitions and said the build-up is a reaction to Russia’s aggressive expansionism. While Trump’s early criticism of Nato is likely to have heartened Moscow, the White House has increasingly made clear its support for the alliance and Trump even urged it to focus more on “threats from Russia”.