Best of times … Worst of times … Diplomatic rift between Russia and America
Syed Nasir Ershad
There is a long history of reciprocal expulsions and other measures between the United States and Russia, even after the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. On Thursday, 29 December 2016 the Obama administration moved to eject 35 Russians suspected of being intelligence operatives as ‘persona non grata’; imposed sanctions on two of Russia’s leading intelligence services; and penalized four top officers of one of those services, the powerful military intelligence unit known as the G.R.U., because of its efforts to influence the presidential election.
As part of the punishment, the State Department said that it would close two waterfront estates that it said were used for Russian intelligence activities. The actions amounted to the strongest American response yet to a state-sponsored cyberattack. United States intelligence agencies have concluded that the G.R.U., with the approval of the Kremlin, ordered the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations, and that the Russian government enabled the publication of the emails it obtained to benefit Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.
Previous sanctions by the United States and its Western allies were levied against broad sectors of the Russian economy and also blacklisted dozens of individuals, some of them close friends of Mr. Putin’s who were considered crucial in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and in destabilizing Ukraine. The economic sanctions covered three main areas, including blocking Russian access to international credit, cutting off cooperation in advanced oil field technology and stopping arms deals or the sale of dual-use technology.
Much of their effect stemmed from the fact that they coincided with a sharp drop in global oil prices, hitting Russia with a double blow. Companies had trouble obtaining credit, driving up the short-term cost of borrowing and compounding a deep recession. Over the long run, the effect is likely to be strongest in the oil sector because it dried up most exploration in difficult areas like the Arctic. Russia responded with sanctions of its own, mostly banning agricultural products and certain foods imported from the West. Mr. Putin and other officials have repeatedly crowed that this resulted in a successful campaign of “import substitution.” Russia also maintained a secret list of Western officials who were no longer allowed into the country. Most, like the former American ambassador Michael McFaul, discovered it only when they applied for visas to Russia.
However, in a surprising move the Russian President Putin announced Friday that he would not retaliate against American President Obama’s decision to expel Russian diplomats and impose new sanctions even though his foreign minister recommended doing just that. The move was remarkable, given that the two countries have a long history of reciprocal expulsions, and Russian officials had been threatening to retaliate for days. Mr. Putin said that in his future steps on the way toward the restoration of Russia-United States relations, he wanted to proceed towards the policy pursued by the administration of the next President.
Mr. Putin has a flair for smart, unexpected tactics, and his announcement of not retaliating appeared to be in keeping with that. To some observers, the sudden shift seemed carefully stage-managed, a way of building up suspense before Mr. Putin’s surprise announcement, helping portray him as a wise leader above the fray. ‘Putin showed that he is above his own officials, that he doesn’t want to take the retaliatory action suggested by his foreign minister,’ said an international relations analyst. Should Mr. Putin have chosen to retaliate harshly against the United States, he would most likely have deepened the rift between the two countries and left President-elect Trump with a nettlesome diplomatic standoff from the moment he arrived in the Oval Office. But by choosing essentially to disregard Mr. Obama’s punitive measures, Mr. Putin can try to disarm his American critics, including members of Congress who consider him an aggressive foe of the United States. That could give Mr. Trump more room to pursue the closer cooperation with Russia that he has advocated.