Putin Makes First Move in His Chess Match With Trump

Vladimir Putin at a news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2016. Sergei Karpukhin/reuters

This article first appeared on the Just Security site.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has defied the long-standing, hard rules of the game in handling espionage affairs by failing to follow the Russian Foreign Ministry's recommendation that Russia retaliate in a tit-for-tat manner to the Obama administration announcement of the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and various other sanctions against Russian officials and entities.

It is a surprising move on the Russian leader's part. "While we reserve the right to respond, we will not drop to this level of irresponsible diplomacy, and we will make further steps to help resurrect Russian-American relations based on the policies that the administration of Trump will pursue," the Russian president said in a statement on the Kremlin's website.

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Deferring direct and immediate retaliation is rare in the long annals of U.S.-Russia spy-versus-spy history, and it is almost certainly not what President Barack Obama had anticipated in ordering U.S. retaliatory measures for alleged Russian hacking activity.

Putin may also be awaiting further promised U.S. actions against Russia in the covert or overt spheres, which will be taken into account when framing his response.

What Is Putin Thinking?

Viewing the hacking affair as a bitter endgame between two presidents, Putin now appears to be willing to concede some pieces on his chessboard to Obama in order to buy time and position for a match that will be continued with a new U.S. president on January 20.

In terms of increasing his flexibility, Putin seems willing to be patient and set aside the immediate benefits of upholding past precedents in the hopes of reaping greater rewards in the future.

Putin Is Turning the Other Cheek—Tongue in Cheek—to Take a Personal Shot at Obama

Putin is signaling his personal contempt for Obama by underscoring the Russian refusal to deal with a lame duck president. He is studiously trying to dismiss whatever the Obama administration has in store in its response to Russia hacking.

The degree to which the animosity between the two leaders has become personal was highlighted by Putin's puckish announcement that U.S. diplomats and their children would be invited to the Kremlin for a Christmas and New Year's party.

Taking a shot at Obama for being willing to sacrifice the careers of U.S. diplomats for his own political purposes, Putin said, presumably tongue in cheek:

The diplomats who are returning to Russia will spend the New Year's holidays with their families and friends. We will not create any problems for U.S. diplomats. We will not expel anyone. We will not prevent their families and children from using their traditional leisure sites during the New Year's holidays. Moreover, I invite all children of U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas children's parties in the Kremlin.

Putin Is Reinforcing the Russian View That the Hacking Affair Has Been Politicized for U.S. Domestic Political Reasons

For now, Putin is unwilling to allow an escalating series of tit-for-tat measures to control the broader bilateral relationship, as the White House and many in Congress desire.

The Russians have no doubt noted that the timing of the U.S. actions, the large number of expulsions, and the sanctions are not in line with precedents that have been set over decades in previous intelligence-related affairs.

Historically speaking, intelligence-related problems between the U.S. and Russia have been handled in a manner to minimize fallout from spy matters. In this case, the Russians have grounds, whether it is true or not, to view U.S. actions as being specifically intended to provoke a Russian response that will further damage U.S.-Russian bilateral relations. If so, it is not in Putin's interest to play to that agenda.

Putin is Resisting Being Baited Into Taking Counteractions That Will Tie the Incoming President's Hands and Ice U.S.-Russian Relations Into a Deep Freeze

By not retaliating immediately and proportionately, as is de rigueur in espionage-related matters, the Russian president is signaling his rejection of the terms of engagement being set by the Obama administration.

Putin is making what he regards as a goodwill gesture, presumably with the hope and expectation that Donald Trump will respond in kind when he takes office. Putin's nonresponse to the outgoing administration's move is in essence his opening move in a new match with an incoming administration that has already expressed its opposition to the current U.S.-Russia policy course.

Can President-Elect Trump Improve U.S.-Russian Relations in the Aftermath of the Russian hacking affair?

The Kremlin will be watching Donald Trump's first moves closely, from the day he takes office. So will Congress. So will the American people.

The incoming administration's willingness to uphold sanctions and other punitive measures against Russia will be a vital early signal for all parties as to the prospects of pursuing a more constructive, mutually beneficial relationship.

Trump will have a delicate line to walk in signaling a desire for better relations with Russia, while also acting in a manner that safeguards U.S. interests. The new president simply cannot escape the fact that Russia bears considerable responsibility for the dramatic deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.

Ukraine. Syria. Russian hacking was the final straw.

No Concessions Required—Only Constructive Engagement

For the incoming U.S. president, constructive engagement fortunately does not necessitate being an apologist for Russian behavior, only being realistic in promoting U.S. interests.

History has shown that in bridging the divide between the U.S. and Russia, trust is not necessary—but mutual respect is essential. Mutual respect has been lamentably absent in the bilateral relationship for many years, and it must be restored through dialogue as a precondition for any improvement in ties.

In framing a new approach, the U.S. and Russia should first discuss principles. Some examples of what has worked in the past: Neither side should make concessions in areas of disagreement as a prerequisite for maintaining strong and continuous lines of communications. Open channels of communication are always important to reduce the possibilities of greater misunderstanding and miscalculations.

We should work to narrow our differences in all areas of disagreement, e.g., Ukraine, Syria, Ballistic Missile Defense and NATO. In parallel, we should identify areas of shared concern and strengthen cooperation in those areas, e.g., terrorism, nuclear terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Moreover, the U.S. and Russia should strive not to hold cooperation over shared threats hostage to that which divides us.

Third Time the Charm?

Trump will begin his chess match with Putin from a position of strength. U.S. flexibility in engaging the Russians flows from the reality that the U.S. remains the strongest military and economic power in the world.

When Putin recently pronounced, "We can say with certainty: We are stronger now than any potential aggressor," he later clarified that this did not include the U.S., which he said he did not view as an "aggressor."

Whether this clarification is sincere or not, Americans should not doubt U.S. strength and resilience in spite of any setbacks we have suffered. It is therefore contrary to our interests to hype the threat by re-creating the Cold War paradigm as the basis for assessing Russia's plans and intentions, and for responding in kind.

The new administration should look instead not to repeat the mistakes both sides made after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and after the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001.

There were opportunities to set a new course after these ground-shattering events, but for various reasons the relationship slipped back into a Cold War footing. Third time the charm?

Can we work together in certain areas of mutual interest despite our differences? We did it at the height of the Cold War. With the benefit of history, we consider agreements to cooperate to be among our finest hours, such as the arms control agreements that stemmed from personal trust between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev.

We need inspired leadership once more to banish Islamic extremism from the face of the earth. We need to work together to reduce nuclear, biological and chemical threats and stabilize the Middle East. Defending U.S. interests across the globe increasingly depends on the degree to which the U.S. and Russia can reduce areas of confrontation and increase cooperation.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He served as the Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations and Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorist Center.