Analysis

In a slap at Obama, Putin plays Mr. Nice Guy

and Contact Reporter

Vladimir Putin is betting that the smartest move is to do nothing.

The Russian president announced Friday that his government would not expel any U.S. diplomats in retaliation for U.S. punitive measures unveiled by the White House a day earlier in response to Russia’s alleged cyber-attacks.

Putin’s sidestep away from confrontation was widely read as a deliberate bow to President-elect Donald Trump -- and a final hard slap at President Obama in the waning weeks of the U.S. leader’s tenure.

“We will not create any problems for U.S. diplomats. We will not expel anyone,” Putin said in a statement posted on the Kremlin website that followed well-publicized calls from senior Russian officials for a sharp pushback against the U.S. administration over steps that included the expulsions of 35 Russian diplomats.

The Russian leader said the Kremlin would instead base future moves on “the policies of the Trump administration.” Trump quickly praised Putin for putting off any action, tweeting: “I always knew he was very smart!”

While Putin’s statement criticized “unfriendly actions” on the outgoing president’s part, he pointedly steered clear of the harsh personal mockery aimed at Obama by other Russian officials in the hours before his statement.

Those included a Facebook screed by Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zarakhova, who described Obama and his team as “embittered and dimwitted foreign policy losers.” Underscoring that point, the Russian Embassy in London put out a derisive tweet featuring a picture of a duck emblazoned with the word “Lame.”

Analysts said Putin’s approach seemed to represent a canny calculation that a vehement Russian response to the U.S. punitive moves would have made it more difficult for Trump, once he takes office, to reverse or soften actions taken by Obama during the final three weeks of his White House tenure.

Trump’s friendly stance toward Putin was a notable feature of the presidential campaign, and he has derided U.S. intelligence assessments that Russian hacking had been meant to tip the election in his favor.  

Had Putin opted to escalate the confrontation over hacking, he would have put the president-elect on even more of a collision course with congressional critics, including some leading Republicans who are deeply wary of Russia’s intentions. Senate hearings on the Russian cyber-attacks are expected after Congress returns next week.

Putin’s conciliatory tone, and the scathing anti-Obama commentary that preceded it, were in all likelihood carefully orchestrated, analysts suggested.

“I think he is trying to come across as reasonable, and trying to portray Obama as having taken an unfair parting shot at him,” said David Kramer, a senior State Department official in the Bush administration. “None of what they’re doing is ad-libbed.”

Putin’s decision marked a break with the practice enshrined in the Cold War era and in decades beyond – that any use of diplomatic tools by either side to express displeasure would be met with a precisely calibrated response.

Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, invoked that principle, noting hours before the Russian leader’s statement that “reciprocity is the law in diplomacy and international relations.”

Lavrov had recommended that Putin expel 35 U.S. diplomats – 31 from the Moscow embassy, and four from the consulate in St. Petersburg – in reply to the American eviction of the same number of Russian diplomatic personnel suspected by the U.S. of acting as intelligence operatives. 

The Obama administration also imposed sanctions on leaders of two Russian spy agencies and placed off-limits two Russian-owned rural compounds, one in New York state and one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which it said were used for intelligence-related activity. Russia describes the sites as recreational getaways for diplomats and their families.  

Instead of responding in kind by shuttering comparable facilities used by American diplomats in Russia, Putin opted for an elaborate show of magnanimity, even inviting the children of American diplomats to take part in traditional festive holiday gatherings at the Kremlin. 

Earlier statements from Russian officials leaned heavily on the hardships for the 35 Russian diplomatic personnel who were declared persona non grata – “PNG’d,” in diplomatic parlance – and given 72 hours to leave the U.S. The Foreign Ministry said that counting spouses and children, 96 Russian nationals in all would be forced to depart.

Accusations of Russian hacking remain likely to rank as an early foreign-policy challenge for Trump when he takes office on Jan. 20.

The Kremlin has repeatedly rejected claims that Moscow tampered with the U.S. presidential election, although it clearly telegraphed its preference of Trump over the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the Kremlin had masterminded cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee and leaked stolen emails with an eye toward helping Trump.

After initially rejecting those assessments as “ridiculous,” the president-elect said Thursday it was time to “move on” from the topic. But he added that he would sit for an intelligence briefing on the matter next week.

Until now, Trump has alarmed many in the foreign policy establishment by skipping most of the classified briefings offered up to prepare him for assuming the presidency.

Special correspondent Mirovalev reported from Moscow and Times staff writer King from Washington.

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UPDATES:

12:45 p.m.: Updated throughout with analysis, Trump tweet.

8:15 a.m.: This article was updated with additional background and comments from Dmitri Medvedev and Maria Zakharova.

This article was originally published at 4:55 a.m.

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