I have followed the career of Vladimir Putin for at least 20 years, writing and speaking about the man and his politics. Although some observers may resent his approach to international politics, I have been impressed, even if I don’t support his objectives. He has combined a willingness to be brutal with political deftness in implementing his policies.
Those who write and speak about him in the mainstream media simplify the man and his approach to foreign policy, often slipping into Cold War hyperbole. Yes, Putin is “crazy,” but he is crazy like a fox. He carefully weighs his options.
Unlike President Obama, Putin does his homework and is well prepared, aware in great detail of the other side’s position. He will pounce on adversaries if they give him an opening. This is what happened after Obama ordered 35 Russian diplomatic and official personnel at the Russian Embassy and other diplomatic posts in the United States to leave the country.
Obama has been under considerable pressure to do something in the aftermath of U.S. intelligence reports that Russians were attacking U.S. electronic and other facilities and hitting Democrats especially hard. The goal, some charged, was to help Republicans win the election. When that happened, Obama came under intense Democratic pressure to retaliate against the Russians. Others, Republicans as well as some Democrats, were not so concerned about the recent election per se, but believed the United States should respond strongly to Putin. It was felt that Washington should make very clear to the Russians that they could not expect to take such action and get away with them.
Obama had to do something if he hoped to save that which is most valuable to him: his legacy. So he did that which is most common among diplomats from both countries: expel the other’s representation. I suspect that the number he arrived at came from our intelligence agencies’ reading of the number of Russians they believed to be intel specialists stationed in the United States. Having observed this process in the past, my expectation was that Russia would prepare a list of Americans in Russia, including those working at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as well as our diplomatic posts in other parts of Russia.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recommended a titfor- tat expulsion of the same number of U.S. diplomats, and it looked as if 35 Russian and 35 American diplomats were headed back to their home countries. Then Putin intervened. He said Russia would not expel U.S. diplomats immediately. While this may have been staged, it was a surprise. If nothing else, Putin had seized the high road. He wanted to wait until Donald Trump was president to see if there was some way to salvage U.S.-Russian relations — to Russia’s advantage. Putin has regarded Obama and his policies as irrelevant for some time. His focus is on Trump.
With his savvy move, Putin embarrassed Obama, and put Trump in a difficult situation. What is Trump going to do when he gets in office? If he refuses to follow through with the expulsions, the right will complain that he is too soft. If he throws them out, Putin will respond and our relations will be in the toilet again.
Trump still wants to see improvement in U.S.-Russian relations. As he put it, “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.” He met with leaders of the U.S. intelligence community on Friday ‘to be updated on the facts of this case.”
It would be an understatement to suggest that Trump has a full table. In addition to numerous other issues, he must now decide how to deal with Moscow. He could call Putin, he could go to Moscow to meet with him, or take some unilateral actions. It would appear, however, that leverage is on Putin’s side. One can only wonder how many more rabbits Putin has in his hat.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U. S. diplomat and Navy captain.