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Trump and Putin Masterfully Sidestepped Obama's Sanctions Trap

Obama tried to box in Trump into poor relations with Russia. He failed

While announcing a series of major sanctions against Russia on Thursday, US President Barack Obama cited two reasons for doing so – first, “aggressive harassment” of American diplomats by Russian security; and, second, “cyber operations aimed at the US election.” The formulation was kept vague.

The US and Russia maintain an intense and at times intrusive surveillance regime on each other’s diplomats. The action-reaction syndrome is so finely honed that it is predictable. If either side chooses to make a fuss about it, the intention can only be propagandistic. Therefore, the measures announced on Thursday by the US state department – expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and shutting down 2 Russian compounds (dacha) – stand out as a political decision.

Perhaps, it is an excessive decision, which from an operational angle also aims at crippling the Russian embassy’s functioning. It stands to reason that by such an excessive decision, Obama guarantees that Russia has no choice but to retaliate. The tantalizing question here is whether that was also Obama’s intention. In the Russian-American diplomatic tango, there is always the risk of ‘loss of face’ and the relationship today has been highly personalized at the presidential level.

In diplomatic terms, such ruptures open wounds, which take time to heal. Obama probably estimated that the incoming president, Donald Trump, will be put at a severe disadvantage for the first few months of his presidency.

As for alleged hostile cyber operations by Russia, Obama has somewhat changed tack and decided to act without waiting for the inquiry report he had sought from the security agencies. Obama has sanctioned nine entities and individuals identified with the Russian foreign intelligence agency and military intelligence, besides declassifying the technical information relating to Russian modus operandi.

The two interesting dimensions to Obama’s statement are, one, his call on the US’ allies to “work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established norms of behaviour, and interfere with democratic governance”, and, two, his move to formally approach the US Congress, which is due to convene on January 3, to follow up on the issues of Russia’s interference.

What is Obama’s game plan? No doubt, it narrows down to laying down the trajectory for the US-Russia relationship beyond the Obama presidency. Obama’s exhortation to come to the barricades to confront Russia may not be found appealing by US’ allies. However, Obama may have better luck by using his political capital to consolidate a strong domestic opinion – among the elites and within the intelligence, military and foreign-policy community – that militates against any attempt by Trump to improve relations with Russia.

Obama has issued an executive order on the Russia sanctions that can always be nullified by Trump, but Obama is also “opening a file” in the US Congress. Obama probably estimates that Trump would lose his way in the labyrinth he is creating on the Hill. Clearly, Obama hopes to pit the Congress against Trump’s likely moves to improve relations with Russia.

Meanwhile, by drawing the intelligence agencies into the fracas, Obama greatly complicates the work for Trump. Spooks with bruised egos can make the ride uncomfortable for a political novice like Trump who never held a government position. Trump’s taunting reaction suggests that he understands Obama’s mind alright. In a sceptical tone, he asked for intelligence briefing:

It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.

Given the time difference, Moscow’s reaction came swiftly at the level of presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Moscow probably expected some provocative behaviour by Obama in the dying weeks of his presidency. Nonetheless, Moscow is surprised by Obama’s “absolutely unexpected display of aggression,” which is “unprecedented.” This is possibly a wry remark, considering that Russians generally regard Obama to be a timid personality.

To be sure, Russia will announce retaliatory measures, possibly this weekend itself. Peskov flagged the centrality of the principle of “reciprocity”. But in all likelihood, it will be a calibrated response, which, while aiming to “cause significant discomfort to the US side in the same areas” – to quote Peskov – will also “to a certain extent take into account” the political reality that Obama is a lame duck. Peskov gave a lucid interpretation to Obama’s game plan:

We are convinced that such decisions by the incumbent (Obama) administration, which by the way has only three weeks of work remaining, pursue two goals: first is to further spoil the Russian-US relations, which are already at their lowest, and, apparently, to deal a blow to the foreign policy plans of the future administration of the US president-elect.

However, the second matter is absolutely a domestic one and the Americans will have to sort out themselves how lawful this line of conduct is. A model of conduct is being forced on the future (US) administration and president-elect.

What we do know is that there are attempts to impose a certain foreign policy direction on the new administration, to limit its freedom to make decisions and to somehow deprive it of its right to follow the path endorsed by the new president.

Moscow senses that Obama is setting a bear trap. The point is, there is a significant body of opinion in the US, which for the first time began acknowledging the imperatives of good relations with Russia. Having said that, a stormy 3-week period lies ahead. Make no mistake, Moscow will make Obama look unworthy of a Nobel.

Putin announced on Thursday the truce deal between Syrian government and the opposition and their agreement to begin peace talks. The Obama administration has been kept out of the regional initiative. The stark message here is that Obama has been all along the problem rather than the solution in Syria.

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