Vladimir Putin was bound to test Donald Trump at some point. But few thought it would happen so fast.
In the wake of President Barack Obama’s decision to expel dozens of Russian diplomats and impose new sanctions on Moscow for allegedly interfering in the 2016 election, Putin said Friday that he would not reciprocate with similar measures aimed at the Americans.
Instead, the Russian president said his country would “take further steps to restore the Russian-U.S. relations taking into account the policy that will be pursued by the administration of President Donald Trump.”
On the one hand, Putin is dissing a lame-duck Obama while appearing to keep an open mind about Trump, whose flattery of Putin has alarmed the broader U.S. national security establishment. At the same time, Putin is directly challenging the Republican president-elect to prove he is serious when he says he wants to improve relations with Moscow.
It’s a complicated test for Trump, a man used to judging other people’s performances. Leading members of his own party are furious over the suspected Russian hacking and other election meddling, and some say Obama, a Democrat they claim to loathe, wasn’t harsh or quick enough with the retaliation package he unveiled Thursday.
The question for Trump is whether he will reduce or rescind the penalties, as the Kremlin wants, once he takes office in three weeks, or whether he will risk angering Putin by keeping or even strengthening the sanctions.
“If Trump doesn’t do what Putin wants, then we are where we are today, and frankly it’s a place where I believe we haven’t been firm enough with Russia,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama administration Pentagon official. “Putin will keep on going if he’s not given a sense of his boundaries. It’s just the way leaders like him operate.”
In a tweet on Friday afternoon, Trump applauded Putin’s decision, and once again flattered him. “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!” the president-elect wrote.
But Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, noted that Putin is clearly still open to escalating Russia-U.S. tensions under a Trump administration.
“I would pay attention to what the Russian government is not saying,” Rojanksy wrote in an email. “They are not saying they won’t expel any U.S. diplomats later, that they won’t find ways to sanction and target U.S. intelligence officials, that they won’t target U.S. diplomatic property in Russia, or that they won’t retaliate against the unspecified measures mentioned in President Obama’s statement yesterday.”
The penalty package Obama unveiled Thursday included kicking out 35 suspected Russian spies from the United States; placing economic sanctions on top officers in Russian intelligence and security agencies; shutting down two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York alleged to be used for spying purposes; and other steps that remain classified to avoid exposing U.S. sources and methods used in obtaining data about Russian activities.
U.S. intelligence agencies are reported to have assessed that not only was Russia trying to rattle the U.S. election process through cyber-hacking and information warfare, it was doing so to help Trump. Such a deduction has badly rattled Trump, who has been quick to lash out against any questions about the legitimacy of his election and refused to accept the intelligence community’s assessments.
Under intense pressure to weigh in on Obama’s sanctions announcement, Trump released a vague statement late Thursday saying that, although he believes “it’s time for our country to move on,” he will meet with leaders of the U.S. intelligence community next week to learn more about their Russia-related findings.
The Kremlin has stridently denied interfering with the election. Before Obama unveiled the sanctions, Russian officials had promised to retaliate with equal force. The Russian presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, noted late Thursday that “there is no alternative here to the principle of reciprocity,” Russian media reported. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is reported to have recommended that Putin kick out 35 U.S. diplomats and bar Americans in Russia from using a vacation house and a warehouse.
But Putin surprised many of his own countrymen when he announced Friday that Russia would ignore the diplomatic tradition of tit-for-tat.
“We will not expel anyone,” the Russian president said, according to a statement on his website. “We will not prevent their families and children from using their traditional leisure sites during the New Year’s holidays.”
He went on, almost wryly: “Moreover, I invite all children of U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas children’s parties in the Kremlin. It is regrettable that the Obama administration is ending its term in this manner. Nevertheless, I offer my New Year greetings to President Obama and his family.”
The Obama administration declined to comment on Putin’s remarks. “We have nothing further to add,” a State Department official said.
Leading Republicans, meanwhile, are not falling for Putin’s charm, and in turn are adding to the pressure on Trump not to do so either.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain is planning a hearing next Thursday on cyber-threats and Russia, a source told POLITICO. Among those slated to testify are James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers. McCain, along with fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has promised to push for “stronger sanctions on Russia” in the new Congress. Any such legislation would have to be signed by a President Trump.
Aside from undermining trust in the U.S. election system, not to mention its broader technological framework, Russia can make life difficult for a Trump administration in other ways.
The Kremlin could escalate its activities in Ukraine, where it already is backing separatists in the former Soviet state’s east and has annexed the Crimea region. Russia could also further undermine U.S. efforts to bring an end to the Syrian civil war; already Moscow is militarily backing the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and cut the U.S. out of recent cease-fire talks.
Perhaps most alarming to U.S. foreign policy hawks is the potential for increased Russian aggression against America’s fellow members of NATO in Europe. Already, there are reports of Russian interference in ongoing election campaigns in several European countries.
Whether on Ukraine, Syria, or even NATO, Trump has taken stances that observers and officials believe appear friendly toward Moscow, indicating, for instance, that he may end U.S. support for moderate rebel factions fighting the Syrian government. But if Republicans insist that Trump act against Putin, he may find himself forced to do so.
Trump’s unwillingness so far to accept Russian culpability has led some Republicans to engage in verbal gymnastics. Many trained their fire on Obama, alleging he acted too late to stop Russian aggression. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that is playing a major role in the Trump transition team, tweeted out a video that declared: “It’s time to deal with Putin from a position of strength.”
But it’s not yet clear that Trump is ready to stare down the steely-eyed Russian president, even as some on the right still hold out hope that he will.
“We really need to get past the politics of this, because if even a piece of what is alleged about this Russian activity is true, it is utterly unacceptable,” John Bolton, a hawkish former United Nations ambassador floated as a potential State Department official under Trump, said Friday morning on Fox News. “It is an attack on our constitutional system.”
Jeremy Herb and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.
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