Putin’s Masterstroke of Nonretaliation

In refusing to expel U.S. diplomats in response to President Obama’s sanctions, the Russian leader pulled another fast one on the White House.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes part in a judo training session at the "Moscow" sports complex in St. Petersburg, on December 22, 2010. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI POOL/ ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes part in a judo training session at the "Moscow" sports complex in St. Petersburg, on December 22, 2010. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI POOL/ ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — It was one of the most heavily anticipated diplomatic moves of the year, but when it came down to it, the Obama administration’s decision to expel 35 embassy staff, close two compounds, and impose sanctions on top intelligence chiefs caught Russia off guard.

The move was virtually unprecedented in the post-Cold War world. But that was the point. It was a gesture more at home in the 1970s, or 1980s, when tit-for-tat expulsions were part of the game. For months as the Russian hacking scandal grew, the Obama administration sat on its hands, refusing to disclose links between Russian operatives and WikiLeaks, of which the CIA claimed to have evidence.

“We all expected a more targeted response, frankly,” says Vladimir Frolov, a security expert and former government advisor.

Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda arm, summed up the mood inside the elite. “Oooh, I’m so scared!” she wrote on Twitter.

Russia’s normal response to what it considers aggressive actions from the West is to act reciprocally — and asymmetrically.

When an American adoptive father was acquitted for the manslaughter of a Russian toddler — the baby died of heatstroke after being left in a parked car for nine hours — Russian authorities responded with a draconian law banning adoptions by American families. And when, in 2005, three children of Russian diplomats were assaulted in Warsaw, three Poles found similar troubles in Moscow.

“The logic is that you can’t do anything to Russia without the expectation that the exact same thing will happen to you,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, an expert close to the Russian foreign-policy elite.

First indications were that it was business as usual. Writing on Facebook, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova promised “official statements, countermeasures, and much else besides.” There was an expectation that the Kremlin was preparing another attack on perceived Western soft targets — perhaps on orphans, human rights groups, or the LGBT community.

On Friday morning, local media were providing teasers as to what the asymmetric response might be. There were reports that the Anglo-American School of Moscow, a favorite of foreign diplomats, would be closed. Country residences for U.S. diplomats would be shuttered. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “suggested” to the Kremlin that there should be 35 reciprocal expulsions — 31 from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and four from the consulate in St. Petersburg.

As the day progressed, however, it became clear that the Kremlin was preparing a more sophisticated reaction.

Various government spokespeople began to paint a picture of sanctions pushed personally by a bitter man. These were Barack Obama’s sanctions, not Donald Trump’s — not even U.S. sanctions. They were the sanctions pushed in a final, futile burst of hatred by a lame-duck president. Even Secretary of State John Kerry was a “good man,” undermined by an emotional president, according to the Foreign Ministry’s Zakharova.

The surprise came around 4 p.m. local time, via a statement was published on the Kremlin’s website. Russia would resist even the minimum expected diplomatic response of retaliatory expulsions, the statement read: “[Russia] will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration.”

Putin even invited the children of U.S. diplomats to his New Year’s party.

With that statement, the Russian president marked a complete about-turn of his traditionally petulant diplomacy. Tactically, it was a triumph. Suddenly “Obama’s sanctions,” designed so as to be untouchable by a future Trump administration, no longer seemed so irreversible.

“It is a very smart move,” Lukyanov says. “It will humiliate Obama even more.”

Putin’s magnanimous gesture also eliminates any doubt as to the likely direction of Russia policy under the Trump administration.

“Trump is now boxed in,” Frolov says. “He has become an unwitting Russian agent — everything he does now will be considered payback for this and earlier election services.”

That, of course, is just fine with the Kremlin. Insiders have reported “euphoria” among certain sections of the elite. Trump’s election, together with the appointment of Kremlinophiles — including Rex Tillerson as secretary of state-designate and the mooted choice of Thomas Graham as ambassador to Russia — has inverted the geopolitical landscape as far as Moscow in concerned. Most economists are already writing in a partial lifting of sanctions next year.

Given the obvious gestures, it would take a brave man to bet against improvement of relations between Russia and the United States. But there is no guarantee that they will improve to the degree expected. Clear differences of opinion over Ukraine, Iran, and China remain obvious stumbling blocks that Trump’s idiosyncratic foreign policy will struggle to overcome.

“Many inside the elite believe it would be idiocy to chain Russia’s fortune to the success of this wacko,” says Frolov.

But signs point to a good start to the relationship. “Putin and Trump will do a kissy-face reset at February’s Helsinki summit,” he says. “They will get along just fine for about a year, or until one of them invades somewhere, and then all bets are off.”

Photo credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Oliver Carroll is the managing editor of the Moscow Times. Follow him on Twitter at: @olliecarroll.

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