Rus­sian ‘bad guys’ pre­pare for a fresh round of games

Of­fi­cials con­sider re­tal­i­a­tion against U.S. af­ter sanc­tions ad­vance

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­DREW ROTH an­drew.roth@wash­post.com

moscow — Your geopo­lit­i­cal neme­sis is suf­fer­ing a po­lit­i­cal melt­down and says you’re partly to blame. An­gry leg­is­la­tors have slapped you with new sanc­tions, which their pres­i­dent says he will sign. What’s a resur­gent au­toc­racy to do?

In Moscow, it’s time for some game the­ory.

Re­gard­less of whether the Krem­lin be­lieves its own de­nials of in­ter­fer­ing in the 2016 elec­tions, there is one un­de­ni­able truth: Rus­sia is now Wash­ing­ton’s great­est po­lit­i­cal foe. Un­der­stand­ing that Pres­i­dent Trump is “tied hand and foot,” as one for­eign pol­icy hawk here put it, Moscow is weigh­ing op­tions for re­tal­i­a­tion.

Af­ter a dal­liance on the Trump train, Rus­sia is once again chan­nel­ing the ruth­less re­al­ism that drives its po­lit­i­cal id and em­brac­ing its role as an­ti­hero.

“Okay, you think we’re bad guys, we’re go­ing to be bad guys, and we’ll see whether you like it or not,” said Kon­stantin Eg­gert, a tele­vi­sion po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor, de­scrib­ing the Krem­lin think­ing.

Rus­sia’s de­ci­sion on Fri­day to ex­pel dozens, per­haps hun­dreds, of Amer­i­can diplo­mats and other em­bassy staff marks the first salvo in re­tal­i­a­tion to Amer­i­can sanc­tions that prom­ises to be un­pre­dictable and fraught with emo­tion. It is built on the frus­tra­tions of a Rus­sian leader who per­haps thought that a Trump pres­i­dency could change every­thing, and then watched those hopes dis­solve in scan­dal and re­crim­i­na­tions.

The Rus­sian es­tab­lish­ment has been an­gry with the West be­fore but rarely so filled with con­tempt.

It is far worse than sev­eral years ago, when ten­sions rose to fever pitch over a pro-Western rev­o­lu­tion in neigh­bor­ing Ukraine, sold on Rus­sian tele­vi­sion as a na­tion­al­ist up­ris­ing with echoes of fas­cism.

“No one was scared by the first [2014] sanc­tions, it was al­most fun,” said An­drei Kolesnikov, a vet­eran mem­ber of Vladimir Putin’s press pool, who co-wrote a 2000 book of in­ter­views with the Rus­sian pres­i­dent and trav­eled with him to Fin­land re­cently. “Now there’s a sense among Rus­sian of­fi­cials that every­thing is very se­ri­ous. And they’re all look­ing at Vladimir Putin to see what to do.”

A com­mon adage about Putin is that he is a canny tac­ti­cian but a poor strate­gist. He has taken the up­per hand in con­flicts with neigh­bors such as Ukraine and Ge­or­gia, and in so do­ing, sur­rounded him­self with en­e­mies. With Trump’s grow­ing po­lit­i­cal im­po­tence, Rus­sia’s cy­ber­in­ter­ven­tion in the 2016 elec­tions now seems sim­i­larly pyrrhic. “I don’t think he knows how this ends,” Kolesnikov said. “The rules are now be­ing made up on the fly.”

Pre­dic­tions for au­tumn are frank: eco­nomic war.

“If the bill is ap­proved, and most prob­a­bly it will be adopted, then we will in­evitably en­ter the stage of what we call the Cold War,” said An­drei Si­dorov, an ex­pert on in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics at Moscow State Univer­sity and one of sev­eral hawk­ish Rus­sian an­a­lysts who sat down for a roundtable dis­cus­sion at a state news agency re­cently. “And the Cold War means var­i­ous re­sponses.”

Putin has said that will de­pend on the ver­sion of the bill signed by Trump. Kom­m­er­sant, a Moscow daily plugged into Krem­lin and for­eign pol­icy cir­cles, sug­gested some op­tions: cut­ting ti­ta­nium or en­riched ura­nium ex­ports to the United States, which could harm the Amer­i­can air­line and ura­nium in­dus­tries; block­ing U.S. diplo­matic ini­tia­tives such as a U.N. vote on new North Korea sanc­tions and co­op­er­a­tion in Syria; and seiz­ing cor­po­rate prop­erty or even kick­ing out U.S. com­pa­nies such as Google or Mi­crosoft.

Moscow knows it’s out­gunned in a trade war. It gen­er­ally fights back by us­ing its own mar­ket as a weapon, whether by im­pos­ing sanc­tions on Euro­pean food im­ports in 2014 or, in a more cyn­i­cal mo­ment in 2013, by ban­ning Amer­i­cans from adopt­ing Rus­sian chil­dren (Trump dis­cussed the adop­tion ban, and prob­a­bly the as­so­ci­ated sanc­tions, with Putin dur­ing an af­ter-din­ner meet­ing at the Group of 20 sum­mit in Ham­burg this month).

“Of course it’s very dif­fi­cult for Rus­sia to do any­thing to harm the U.S. in­ter­ests un­less Rus­sia is ready to take steps, which will harm our­selves,” said Fy­o­dor Lukyanov, chair­man of the Coun­cil for For­eign and De­fense Poli­cies, an in­flu­en­tial group of Rus­sian for­eign pol­icy ex­perts.

Hawks por­ing over the U.S. sanc­tions say Moscow needs to break the rules. “It says that by no means shall sanc­tions ap­ply to NASA projects,” said Niko­lay Platoshkin, a for­mer Rus­sian diplo­mat and pro­fes­sor at the Moscow Univer­sity of the Hu­man­i­ties, re­fer­ring to the bill passed by the Se­nate. “Here we go, a per­fect tip, let them ap­ply [to NASA], let Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts ride horses to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.”

One idea voiced by the Krem­lin is to ex­pand co­op­er­a­tion with Europe, and pos­si­bly with China, to coun­ter­bal­ance U.S. power. Euro­pean lead­ers have ex­pressed anger over the planned U.S. sanc­tions, say­ing they could back­fire, deal­ing a blow to transat­lantic ef­forts to curb Rus­sian ag­gres­sion against Ukraine and spark­ing a trade war be­tween Europe and the United States.

“Of course for our en­tire lives we’ve held onto the hope that Europe is close to us and will align in its in­ter­est with us against the Amer­i­cans,” said Si­dorov. But he was doubt­ful that the cur­rent cri­sis would bring about this schism.

Mean­while, di­a­logue be­tween the coun­tries is min­i­mal. Amer­i­can diplo­mats can’t get their Rus­sian diplo­mats to agree on facts about Moscow’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the elec­tion hack, and they ex­pect Rus­sians to ac­cept the tes­ti­mo­ni­als given by Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence chiefs as ev­i­dence of Rus­sia’s com­plic­ity. The Rus­sians have de­manded ev­i­dence, which the Amer­i­cans say would com­pro­mise sources and meth­ods of in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing. The im­passe is to­tal. Con­flict is as­sured.

“There’s a sense among Rus­sian of­fi­cials that every­thing is very se­ri­ous.” An­drei Kolesnikov, vet­eran mem­ber of Putin press pool

LEHTIKUVA/REUTERS

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in Fin­land last week. Moscow is weigh­ing its re­sponse to the sanc­tions sought by U.S. of­fi­cials.

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