US President Barack Obama and Republican President-elect Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting in the Oval Office at the White House. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson
Barack Obama and Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in 2016. After the 2020 election, signs of a smooth transition from Trump to Joe Biden are yet to be seen. Photo: AFP / Jim Watson

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 – the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and shutting down 2 Russian compounds (dachas) – stand out as a political decision.

Perhaps, it is an excessive decision, which from an operational angle is also aimed at crippling the Russian embassy’s functioning.

It stands to reason that Obama expects Russia to retaliate. The tantalizing question here is whether that was also Obama’s intention.

In Russian-American diplomatic tango, there is always the issue of ‘loss of face’ and the relationship today has also been highly personalized at the presidential level.

In diplomatic relations, such ruptures create foul air, which takes time to dissipate. 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 in cyber operations.

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 behavior, 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 in November election.

What is Obama’s game plan? Beyond any doubt, it narrows down to laying down the trajectory for the US-Russia relationship even beyond Obama’s 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 establishment – that militates against any attempt by Trump to improve relations with Russia.

By linking this attempt to Trump’s election victory, he has put the president-elect somewhat on the defensive.

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 pit the Congress against the 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. That, at least, seems to be Obama’s calculation.

Trump’s initial reaction suggests that he understands Obama’s mind alright. He has asked for the intelligence to show him the evidence backing Obama’s remarks on Russia.

Obama has hinted that he will keep poking the Russian bear all through to the very end on January 20 so that at some point it lashes out. Will the Kremlin oblige Obama?

Given the time difference, Moscow’s reaction has come swiftly at the level of the presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Some clues to the Kremlin thinking are available from Peskov’s remarks.

Moscow probably expected some provocative behavior 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 measured 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 administration’s days are actually numbered.

Indeed, why should the Kremlin give undue importance to a lame duck American president who is striving to look consequential? 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.

The bottom line is that Moscow sees through Obama’s pantomime. After all, Obama did the same thing, quintessentially, to the US-Israeli relationship recently.

Moscow will take into account that there is a significant body of opinion in the US for the first time, which realizes the importance of good relations with Russia. Having said that, a stormy 3-week period lies ahead.

Make no mistake, Moscow will make Obama look increasingly unworthy of a Nobel. Putin announced on Thursday the truce between Syrian government and the opposition and their agreement to begin peace talks.

The Obama administration has been totally ignored bypassed in the regional initiative to resume the Syrian peace talks. The stark message here is that Obama was the problem rather than the solution in Syria.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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