Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grandly restrained response to the sanctions and expulsions US President Barack Obama announced yesterday was even by his standards both very surprising and extremely clever.
The full statement published on his website shows why:
We regard the recent unfriendly steps taken by the outgoing US administration as provocative and aimed at further weakening the Russia-US relationship. This runs contrary to the fundamental interests of both the Russian and American people. Considering the global security responsibilities of Russia and the United States, this is also damaging to international relations as a whole.
As it proceeds from international practice, Russia has reasons to respond in kind. Although we have the right to retaliate, we will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration.
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 US 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 US diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year and Christmas children’s parties in the Kremlin.
It is regrettable that the Obama Administration is ending its term in this manner. Nevertheless, I offer my New Year greetings to President Obama and his family.
My season’s greetings also to President-elect Donald Trump and the American people.
I wish all of you happiness and prosperity.
(bold italics added)
Obama’s mean minded and spiteful act of yesterday has afforded Putin the perfect opportunity to appear broadminded and magnanimous, and he has seized it with both hands.
Where Obama has acted in the run up to the New Year holiday to make life as difficult for Russian diplomats in the US as possible (recent reports say they are struggling to find commercial flights to comply with Obama’s demand that they leave the US within 72 hours), Putin has invited the children of US diplomats in Moscow to go to the New Year and Orthodox Christmas parties in the Kremlin (it will be interesting to see whether their parents and the State Department let any of them go).
Where Obama has made angry and so far unsubstantiated claims that Putin was behind the Clinton leaks, Putin sends Obama and his family New Year greetings.
Putin then caps these grand gestures by reminding Obama – ever so gently – that in three weeks he’ll be gone. Thus the reference to the incoming Trump administration and the Season’s Greetings to Donald Trump. Twisting the knife even further (one can almost see the gleam in Putin’s eye) the statement ends with Season’s Greetings to the American people, where recent opinion polls show Putin is becoming increasingly popular with Republican voters.
In responding in this way, Putin is of course refusing to rise to Obama’s bait and be provoked into a reaction that will help Obama’s campaign to box in the incoming Trump administration. Indeed his statement says as much:
We regard the recent unfriendly steps taken by the outgoing US administration as provocative and aimed at further weakening the Russia-US relationship…..Although we have the right to retaliate, we will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration
(bold italics added)
However its careful wording shows that Putin has also carefully judged the public reaction. He must know – and his media advisers will have told him – that this was one statement of his which the Western media would not be able to suppress or ignore, but which if only for a few hours would dominate the news cycle.
He has seized the opportunity this has afforded him to show himself and Russia in the best possible light: refusing to be provoked, solicitous for people’s enjoyment of their New Year holidays, and generous towards their children.
The contrast with the way in which the Obama administration and the Western media have repeatedly sought to cast him could not be greater.
This episode also shows something else about Putin, which I have often commented on, but which receives no attention in the Western media because it so completely contradicts the image the Western media has of him. This is Putin’s deeply ingrained habit of courtesy. Here we have an example of Putin using it to his and Russia’s advantage.
That Putin’s statement has successfully hit home is shown by the bewildered Western media reaction, which whilst reporting the statement is struggling to come up with a coherent response. In one or two places even a note of unacknowledged and heavily qualified admiration grudgingly sneaks through, as for example in this comment by the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus
“This was a carefully stage-managed response from Mr Putin – dangling the possibility of tit-for-tat expulsions and then showing magnanimity in postponing any response – at least for now.
It is fundamentally a put-down for the Obama administration, suggesting that, in Moscow’s view, it is such a lame-duck, so irrelevant, as to make any response unnecessary.
It also poses an immediate test for President-elect Trump. Will he be convinced by the evidence the US intelligence agencies say they have? And, if so, what course will he steer in his relations with Russia?
This is no new Cold War. Russia is simply a kind of “pocket” superpower, nothing like the Soviet Union of old. But Mr Putin has shown here in relations with the West, as in Ukraine and Syria, that he can play a limited hand with great skill. Mr Trump will need to respond to this challenge in a decisive but graduated way.”
(bold italics added)
Though this comment is full of the West’s typical condescension towards Putin and Russia (“Russia a “pocket” superpower”) – which is incidentally contradicted by its call to Trump to “respond to this challenge in a decisive but graduated way” – it cannot in the end deny the “great skill” with which Putin has acted.
Putin’s statement is not of course only or even principally directed at the Western public. A fact which Western commentators consistently overlook is that Putin’s primary audience, and the one he always principally addresses whenever he speaks, is the Russian public.
Here again Putin’s statement shows what a skilful politician he is, which in turn shows why he has dominated Russian political life for so long.
His response to Obama’s boorish actions on the eve of the New Year holiday (the biggest and most important holiday in Russia) is to call them a “provocation” . He then makes Russia – and by extension himself – appear all the stronger and greater by refusing to be provoked by them.
At the same time he makes Obama appear vindictive by revealing how his actions have disrupted the New Year holidays of Russian diplomats and their families. He then contrasts this by making Russia – and again by extension himself – appear open hearted and generous by not only refusing to respond in kind but by inviting the children of US diplomats to the New Year and Christmas parties in the Kremlin.
This is a very skilfully judged response, which will only only serve to confirm the already high opinion most Russians have of Putin, and which will further consolidate their support for him as their leader.
This incidentally has been the consistent pattern throughout Putin’s Presidency, with Putin always turning the West’s attacks on him to his domestic political advantage.
All in all, if this episode shows Obama at his most ugly and small-minded, it also shows Putin at his most skilful and most clever.
Since a consistent feature of Obama as President is that he always wants to be taken for the cleverest man around, Putin’s reaction – showing Putin once again to be cleverer than he is – is all but guaranteed to enrage Obama even more.