Russia’s response to Obama ‘is frankly the most damaging and embarrassing answer we could receive’

caption
US President Barack Obama with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
source
Thomson Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday said the Kremlin “will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy” in response to new US sanctions for Russia’s suspected meddling in the US election process.

“Although we have the right to retaliate,” Putin said, Russia would 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 US, and he closed Russian compounds in New York and Maryland.

Russia’s 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 specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs.

“This is frankly the most damaging and embarrassing answer we [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 nonissue.”

caption
Putin with Obama in Hangzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province on September 5.
source
Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense 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, the program director for the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Business Insider in an email Friday 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.”

caption
Vladimir Putin.
source
Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

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 he 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 Thursday, echoing what he told reporters on Wednesday from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Trump’s response indicated a willingness to put the hacking scandal in the past to move forward with a policy he frequently espoused on the campaign trail, one that would see his working 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.

caption
Paul Ryan.
source
Darren Hauck/Getty Images

House Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday said 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 he “strongly” supported “the steps the administration is taking to fight back against Russia’s interference in our election.”

“We need to punch back against Russia,” he continued, “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.”

Trump is therefore likely to face resistance to his “pro-Putin agenda,” Kramer said, and the resulting policies may not be as congenial as Putin hopes.

“It is also doubtful that Defense 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 nonresponse speaks to the fact that he is trying to give Trump maximum space to reset the relationship, Kofman of the Wilson Center said.

“And that,” he added, “is the more important game Moscow is playing in 2017.”