On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would not expel any Americans as a tit for tat reprisal for American sanctions announced the day before, including the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats.
Since kicking out each others’ diplomats is practically obligatory in these cases, Putin’s conciliatory tone was a big surprise. It wrong-footed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who had proposed expelling 35 U.S. diplomats in retaliation. And while awaiting the announcement of sanctions, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova had promised that Russia would retaliate. On Thursday, there were reports that the Anglo-American School in Moscow would be closed down as an act of revenge.
Instead, Putin invited the children of U.S. diplomats to a New Year and Christmas party at the Kremlin.
In a Kremlin statement, Putin called the U.S. reprisals “unfriendly steps” that are “damaging to international relations as a whole.” But then he tendered an apparent olive branch to the next U.S. president.
“While we reserve the right to take reciprocal measures, we’re not going to downgrade ourselves to the level of irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy,” Putin said, “but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration.”
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump showed his approval of the move on Twitter.
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
He then proudly pinned the tweet to the top of his Twitter profile page. The Russian Embassy in the United States retweeted the social media missive.
Given the Trump camp’s friendly line toward Moscow both during the election and afterward — despite the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials that Putin directed the election-meddling hacks — that wait-and-see attitude makes sense, said Matthew Waxman, a national security and international law expert at Columbia University
“Putin’s moves must be viewed in the context of the U.S. presidential transition, and what he hopes to gain in a Trump administration,” he said. With Russia keen to shake off Western sanctions and exploit a freer hand in Europe and the Middle East, it’s no time for small ball, Waxman said. “Expelling diplomats and agents is minor stuff for him compared to winning concessions on Ukraine and the lifting of economic sanctions.”
Timothy Frye, Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy and the chair of Columbia University’s political science department, said that Putin’s reaction constituted “an effort to try to keep attention away from the Russian hacking.” Escalating the situation, he said, “would have just kept the stories in the newspapers for a few more days and might have made it harder to back down. It also has a little flavor of — not quite admitting guilt — but accepting the decision.” And “the broader point,” Frye said, “is that the Obama administration must be pretty confident that they have information that they could reveal to the public that could really sway the public that the Russians were involved.”
This is to say that securing concessions from the Trump administration will require winning over more than just the next White House, which could theoretically erase them with a pen stroke. Some GOP heavyweights are calling for even tougher sanctions on Russia, and look askance at Trump’s efforts to dismiss Russian interference in the election. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) tweeted yesterday that he and Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) will push in Congress for tougher penalties on Russia. And if Putin retaliates in January when the Intelligence Community’s report is released, Congress may be in a difficult decision. Per Frye, it will put Congress Republicans in a difficult position if Trump comes in and unilaterally lifts sanctions for which there is some bipartisan support — and which Congress could put back in place, if they have the votes.
If fault lines over U.S. policy toward Russia spill over into a spat between the White House and Congress, Putin may yet find a need for some of that messy ‘kitchen diplomacy’ after all.
Update, Dec. 30, 2016, 11:44 p.m.: This post was updated to include comment from Timothy Frye.
Update, Dec. 30, 2016, 3:37 p.m.: This post was updated anew to include mention of the the pinned tweet from Donald Trump.
Photo credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images