An instance of such monumental patience is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, in Russian diplomacy: Moscow took 179 days to retaliate against former US President Barack Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats on December 30, 2016, ostensibly to show rancour at alleged Russian efforts to interfere with the US presidential election.
The 35 Russian diplomats were “intelligence operatives”, Obama said. He gave them 72 hours to leave American soil, and he impounded two Russian diplomatic compounds as well.
In Moscow, though, President Vladimir Putin responded that Russia wouldn’t retaliate but would decide on further steps only after considering the actions of the incoming new president, Donald Trump.
Putin went on invite the children of American diplomats posted in Russia to a Christmas party in the Kremlin. But he had a master plan.
Putin preferred to start Russia’s discourse with the Trump administration on a creative note. Trump had raised high expectations in Moscow that a brave new world of partnership between Russia and the US might be approaching.
In the months that followed, however, such hopes began dimming even as Russia became a toxic subject in the Washington Beltway.
Nonetheless, residual hope lingered, as Trump deputed state secretary Rex Tillerson to travel to Moscow for talks in April and within the month also received the visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office.
The Russian spirits certainly soared when Trump and Putin held an extraordinary 126-minute meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg where they discussed a range of issues complicating the relationship and yet managed to stay in their positions.
However, the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme with the US Congress passing legislation on further sanctions against Russia. What stunned Moscow is the near-unanimity with which the US lawmakers voted for the bill.
Moscow has drawn two conclusions. First, an intensification of US pressure against Russia is on the cards even as Russophobia has morphed into an anti-Russian mindset. A hardening of the US stance on Ukraine is likely. In Syria, too, Russia is far from a commanding position since several players are, pursuing own agenda.
The sanctions encompass areas where Russia has the capacity to offer cooperation – energy, defense, mining, railway transport, etc. Curiously, the bill seeks to arm-twist third countries that may be inclined toward developing cooperation with Russia – countries such as India, Vietnam, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Again, real pressure will come if the US begins to tamper with the strategic balance with Russia.
Second, the legislation virtually takes the Russia policies out of Trump’s hands. Moscow trusted Trump’s instincts to improve relations with Russia and hoped that he’d call the shots ultimately.
Congress is reducing Trump to a subaltern role. Russia has no means to leverage influence in the US Congress.
But that may be about to change. Congress is reducing Trump to a subaltern role. Russia has no means to leverage influence in the US Congress. Trump may find a way to strike back at the Congress but it is small comfort if political tensions consequently rise in Washington.
All in all, therefore, Moscow sees that a normalization of Russia-US relations can be ruled out for a foreseeable future. The Congress can be expected to determine the US policy towards Russia through the Trump presidency – and this will be a policy of strangling Russia.
This grim prospect leaves Russia with no alternative but to recognise the US as a strategic and key challenge to its security.
Thus, Moscow’s decision on July 28 to curb the US diplomatic presence in Russia may seem a timid response. After all, Moscow is only responding to Obama’s harsh decision and is merely seeking reciprocity with a ceiling of 455 diplomats for both countries (which is where Russian tally currently stands.)
But on close examination, Washington has been made to look foolish. While Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats, Putin’s order to slash the number of US diplomatic staff to 455 will affect a few hundred US personnel currently assigned to Russia.
Moscow is signalling that bilateral cooperation has become pointless. Indeed, Trump has nothing to do with the anti-Russia campaign and the American public remains indifferent, while an improbable coalition of the Congress and the jeering media is orchestrating the chorus. But the realities cannot be ignored.
The triumphalism on the Hill will be short-lived, because the potential strategic consequences for US’ core interests and vital interests are yet to sink in. The West’s policy on Russia now onward becomes a point of discord between Washington and the EU.
China, no doubt, gets a huge strategic windfall, since Moscow will seek closer rapprochement with Beijing, especially on security. A Russian observer noted wryly, “we can easily imagine them (Russia and China) holding military drills in the Straits of Florida near Cuba.”
Knowing Putin, Russia’s response will be calibrated. He implied in remarks while visiting Helsinki on Tuesday that Russia will play the long game.
After all, it is not only in the US’ relations with Russia, but also with allies in Europe and Asia – Germany and Japan, in particular – that fault lines have appeared. Russian diplomacy can be trusted to exploit what Germans call the “zeitgeist” – the spirit of our times – as the US’ global influence inexorably declines.
Russia’s cooperation can be crucial to US interests, and Moscow now has an option to cherry pick. Make no mistake, Moscow will exercise its option highly selectively.