Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that the Kremlin “will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy” in response to new US sanctions against Russia for allegedly meddling in the US election process.
“Although we have the right to retaliate,” Putin said, Russia will instead “plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration.”
President Barack Obama issued new sanctions against Russia on Thursday, calling Russia’s “malicious cyber-enabled activities” a “national emergency” aimed at undermining democratic processes. He also said he would eject 35 Russian diplomats from the United States, and closed Russian compounds in New York and Maryland.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov initially suggested that Russia would respond in kind by ejecting 35 US diplomats in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
That idea was shot down by Putin, however, who has effectively chosen “not to dignify the measures taken against Russia with a response,” said Michael Kofman, a global fellow at the Wilson Center who specialises in Russian and Eurasian affairs.
“This is frankly the most damaging and embarrassing answer the US could receive,” Kofman told Business Insider on Friday. “It’s quite clear that both the Obama administration and Congress are trying to box Donald Trump in on Russia policy. But instead of responding to this latest salvo with predictable retaliatory measures, Russians have chosen to make them a non issue.”
Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, noted that even the conflicting responses from Lavrov and Putin appeared strategic.
“Lavrov and the Duma played bad cop and Putin played good cop here,” Zilberman said.
“I think Putin saw through Obama’s attempt to throw a wrench into relations in the next administration, and looking as though he is above the fray is likely a win as well for him.”
Mark Kramer, program director for the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Affairs, noted that Putin’s “conspicuous announcement today was intended in part to give the impression that Obama’s measure are weak and inconsequential (as indeed they largely are) and do not deserve a response.”
“Putin can thus depict himself as taking the high road,” Kramer added, “and undoubtedly will be praised in European and Third World countries that are always eager to condemn the United States.”
Indeed, Putin on Friday appeared to play up the idea that he was taking the high road, using his statement to invite “all children of US diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas children’s parties in the Kremlin” and offering “New Year greetings to President Obama and his family.”
President-elect Donald Trump said on Thursday that he would meet with US intelligence officials to discuss the Russian involvement in the election hacks, but reiterated that he felt it was “time to move on” from the issue.
“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said in a brief statement released on Thursday, echoing what he told reporters on Wednesday from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Trump’s response indicates that he will be willing to put the hacking scandal in the past in order to move forward with a policy he frequently espoused on the campaign trail: that he will work more closely with Putin in an attempt to mend the US-Russian relationship.
“The lack of a response means that bilateral relations will not be stuck in a rapid downward spiral by the time Trump takes office in just over three weeks’ time,” Kramer said. “Putin clearly believes that Trump will be far more willing to accommodate Russia’s demands in Syria and Ukraine and other regions of the world and will also be far more willing to accept Putin’s entrenchment of authoritarian rule within Russia.”
Still, it is unclear whether Congress will follow Trump’s lead.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Thursday that the sanctions were “overdue” and “appropriate,” and that “Russia does not share America’s interests.”
“In fact, it has consistently sought to undermine them, sowing dangerous instability around the world,” Ryan added.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, moreover, said that he “strongly support[s] the steps the administration is taking to fight back against Russia’s interference in our election. We need to punch back against Russia, and punch back hard.”
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain vowed to introduce even more sanctions on the Kremlin next year, calling Obama’s actions “long overdue” and “a small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy.”
As such, Kramer noted, Trump will undoubtedly face resistance to his “pro-Putin agenda,” and the resulting policies may not be as congenial as Putin hopes.
“It is also doubtful that Defence Secretary-designate James Mattis will blithely put up with a series of far-reaching concessions to Putin’s government,” Kramer said.
In the meantime, however, Putin’s non-response speaks to the fact that he is trying to give Trump maximum space to reset the relationship, said Kofman, of the Wilson Center.
“And that,” he added, “is the more important game Moscow is playing in 2017.”
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