Vladimir Putin’s restrained response to U.S. cyber sanctions could be an effort to ease the transition process for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. But will this strategy really pay off?

"While being able to establish personal chemistry with the U.S.-President-elect, Putin will inevitably lose his key political asset — Obama’s presidency, which brought global political acclaim to him amidst a series of international crises." Photo: AP  

On Dec. 29 the administration of outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia for alleged cyber attacks on American servers during the 2016 presidential campaign. The high ranks of the Russian intelligence services, several organizations and private figures were blacklisted in a move of retaliation. Moreover, 35 Russian diplomats were expelled, with their two private diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland closed.  

The first response of the Russian authorities and society to Obama’s move was very negative and emotional in its nature. Many Russians were puzzled by this decision, including those who understand the importance of the previous set of sanctions imposed on Russia after the murder of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison and after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its indirect involvement in the Donbas war.

The Obama administration didn’t provide any evidence of Russian hackers actually being involved in interfering in the U.S. electoral process. Moreover, many Russians have started speculating that Obama is simply seeking to make the life of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump even more difficult, given his repeated promises to improve relations with Moscow.

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That might be the reason why the Russian president decided not to retaliate in response to the new set of sanctions - it is simply an attempt to alleviate the challenges that Trump faces in normalizing relations with Moscow.

“We won’t create problems for American diplomats [in response to the U.S.-imposed sanctions],” he said in a Dec. 30 statement. “We won’t expel anyone. We won’t forbid their families and children from celebrating the New Year holidays in the places where they are used to spending their time. Moreover, I invite all children of American diplomats, accredited in Russia, to celebrate New Year and Christmas in the Kremlin.” 

Oddly enough, Putin even wished happy holidays to Obama and his family while expressing regrets about Obama’s last presidential move. Without a doubt, the Kremlin toned down its anti-American rhetoric and became more tolerant because it sees the outgoing Obama as a “lame duck” and plans to start building ties with the Trump administration from scratch.

And in this regard, Russians might be grateful to Putin because he alleviated their negative emotions. In fact, Putin behaved like a well-experienced psychiatrist on the eve of the most popular holiday in Russia, the New Year. He just showed off his magnanimity to highlight that it is one of the characteristics of Russia’s national character. 

However, it could be just wishful thinking. Russians should not be misled and charmed by the idea that their president is so decent and Obama is a villain attempting to spoil their favorite holiday. One should not take the situation emotionally even though it could be music to one’s ears. One should look at the situation with a sober mind and base one’s judgment on facts.

The reality is that Obama, who may have been outsmarted once again by Putin, has been the most convenient president for eight years for the Kremlin. Obama came to the Oval Office with sincere intentions to improve U.S.-Russia relations, with his reset policy having created the most auspicious environment for then-President Dmitry Medvedev.

In fact, because of Obama’s flexibility and inclination to think rather than act decisively, Putin jumped at the opportunity to implement his assertive foreign policy plan of annexing Crimea and, afterwards, launching the military intervention in Syria. All this made Putin one of the world’s most influential politicians. Thanks to this global publicity, Putin has been able to remain at the helm regardless of the challenging economic crisis in 2014-2015.

Thus, Russians should pay a great deal of respect to Obama, who was overshadowed by Putin’s heroic and political machismo. And the story about the New Year’s Eve sanctions for alleged cyberattacks proves this. The message of these sanctions should really concern Russia.

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“Finally, the decision is made, but it is only the beginning — Russia should be held accountable for what it did,” this is how this message should be interpreted. After all, it echoes the rhetoric of a number of American influential politicians, including Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and Senators John McCain (Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina).

Even a "friend" of Russia, U.S.-President-elect Donald Trump, promised to listen carefully to the arguments of the U.S. intelligence services about the Kremlin’s alleged cyberattacks, although previously he was very skeptical about Russia’s involvement.

Thus, Obama’s decision to impose sanctions could be seen as less deleterious than the post-election anti-Kremlin campaign in the U.S. It has been indeed large-scale at least because Russia became a very convenient target for America’s political forces for both parties. While the Republicans are scoring points by taking on “the Russian threat,” the Democrats are trying to shift responsibility to “Russian hackers” for their failure during the presidential election. 

In reality, Obama found himself trapped in the situation where he could not help imposing these sanctions. Likewise, he could not help responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the MH17 Boeing downing over Eastern Ukraine. With Trump coming to power in 2017, the White House might indeed become the center of pro-Russian forces in the United States.

But, first, these forces are overshadowed by political heavyweights (who are skeptical toward the Kremlin). Second, the real friends of Russia (like former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Stanford Professor Michael McFaul) who know its culture and values found themselves on the political periphery with the rise of Trump. Third, while being able to establish personal chemistry with the U.S.-President-elect, Putin will inevitably lose his key political asset — Obama’s presidency, which brought global political acclaim to him amidst a series of international crises.             

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.