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.

Deferring direct and immediate retaliation is rare in the long annals of US-Russia spy-versus-spy history, and it is almost certainly not what President Barack Obama 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 he will then be able to take into account in framing his response. 

What is Putin thinking?

Viewing the hacking affair as a bitter end game between two presidents, Putin appears to be willing to concede some pieces on his chess board to Obama now, in order to buy time and position for a match that will be continued with a new U.S. president on January 20, 2017.  In terms of increasing his flexibility, Putin seems willing to set aside immediate benefits of upholding past precedents to being patient in hopes of reaping greater future rewards.

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 Russian refusal to deal with a lame duck president.  Putin 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 US 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 sent set over decades in previous intelligence-related affairs.  Historically speaking, intelligence-related problems between the US 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 US-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 US-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 that he is rejecting the terms of engagement that are being set by the Obama administration.  Putin is making what he regards as a good will 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 US-Russia policy course.

Can President Trump improve US-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 acting in a manner that safeguards U.S. interests.  The new president simply can not escape the fact that Russia bears considerable responsibility for the dramatic deterioration in US-Russian relations. Ukraine. Syria. Russian hacking was only the final straw.

No concessions required – only constructive engagement

Fortunately for the new US president, constructive engagement 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 US 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 US 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.  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 US 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 US remains the strongest military and economic power in the world.  When Putin recently pronounced that, “We can say with certainty: We are stronger now than any potential aggressor,” he later clarified that this did not include the US, which he said he did not view as an “aggressor.”  Whether this clarification is sincere, or not, Americans should not doubt American strength and resilience, in spite of any setbacks we have suffered.  It is therefore contrary to U.S. 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; work together to reduce nuclear, biological and chemical threats, and stabilize the Middle East; to defend US interests across the globe that increasingly depend on the degree to which the US and Russia can reduce areas of confrontation and increase cooperation.

Image: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais