Putin reverses: Won't expel US diplomats in diplomatic tiff

After Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats yesterday afternoon, attention shifted to Moscow for the inevitable tit-for-tat retaliations. At first, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin threatened exactly that, as is usual in diplomatic disputes, citing the need to provide “reciprocity.” The Washington Post called it “a stark warning,” which it seemed to be:

The Kremlin on Friday issued a stark warning to the United States, saying it would respond in kind to the U.S. expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and other sanctions following the Russian hacking of U.S. political parties before the 2016 presidential elections.

“I cannot say now what the response will be, although, as we know, there is no alternative here to the principle of reciprocity,” said Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov in a statement late Thursday reported by the Interfax news service.

He said that Russian President Vladimir Putin would decide the exact response.

Just a few hours later, however, Putin appeared to reverse the Russian position entirely. Rather than pronounce a persona non grata status for more than two dozen American personnel in Russia, Putin instead wished them a happy holiday — and sent his greetings to Obama as well. Putin made it clear that he didn’t want to act in an “irresponsible” manner in the short period until the next US administration took office:

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.

This isn’t just a case of a spokesman getting out ahead of his skis. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov had also suggested that as many as 31 American diplomatic officials and their families would spend the holidays heading back to the US, in remarks that took place a few hours before Putin’s statement. Spokespeople can occasionally make bad assumptions when offering responses, but one has to assume Lavrov had worked with Putin to come up with that rather specific number ahead of time. That certainly sent the message that the Kremlin planned a typical diplomatic response, but Putin has called it off — at least for now.

So what happened? It seems unlikely that Putin changed his mind and balked at the response. It’s much more likely that Putin decided from the get-go to shrug it off. The saber-rattling ahead of this statement from Lavrov and Peskov might have been designed to make Putin look calm and magnanimous on the international stage in comparison to Obama and John Kerry. Obama and Kerry might spin the lack of diplomatic retaliation as a de facto admission about Russian attempts to influence the election, but if so, that will only last for 22 more days.

That’s almost certainly the calculation here, as Putin strongly hints in his statement. Obama and Kerry are all but irrelevant now, and Putin can rebalance his diplomatic team once Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson take the helm. Getting rid of the sanctions will take more time, but again, it’s a task better left for four weeks from now. What’s the point in engaging Obama and Kerry now?

Nevertheless, this issue isn’t closed yet, and shouldn’t be until Congress gets a full accounting of Russian attempts to influence the election. Trump sent out a statement late last night that he’ll pursue it as well, at least to the point of meeting with intelligence leaders:

“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”

It’s time for us to move on from the election, but it’s important to ensure that our electoral processes are secure from foreign influence, too. We can do both — and should.

Note: Readers in the US might wonder about Putin’s invitation to Americans to join Christmas parties. The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas Day on January 7th from the Gregorian calendar calculations, rather than December 25th.