He can look above it all, and make Obama look small, because he has the next President right where he wants him.
So, a day after a remarkable series of sanctions were levied against Russia for their unprecedented interference in American elections, and mere hours after blustery Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Russia would retaliate, Vladimir Putin managed to look like the biggest man in the world by shrugging off the measures, and saying that Russia wasn’t going to react at all.
“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.
The statement also wished Obama, Trump and the American people a happy new year and invited “all the children of American diplomats accredited in Russia to the new year and Christmas tree in the Kremlin”.
This, one has to admit, is masterful. It’s the foreign policy equivalent of the “u mad, bro?” memes, which is apt, since the entire Russian scheme was basically based around trolling. It makes the US look reactionary, and makes President Obama look weak and sputtering. Russia is basically saying, “man, we don’t even care what you’re doing, loser” (indeed, a Kremlin spokeswoman literally said that the sanctions and explusions were levied by “foreign policy losers”.)
I have no doubt that many on the right will treat that exactly as Putin intends it: to mock Obama for being weak, and praise Putin for being strong. But there is a reason why Putin won this round: he has all the cards, and they were dealt to him by the electoral college. He has Trump. (And yes, it was very hard not to write “he has the Trump card”. I don’t expect any applause for my restraint, but I’ll take it.)
Let’s look at what Obama’s “weakness” actually is. It was a response to a foreign power hacking into one (or both) of our political parties, and selectively releasing that information specifically to help one side. Whether that is because Hillary Clinton was inimical to Russia, or because Trump was staunchly pro-Russian, for whatever reason, or (most likely) a combination, doesn’t really matter. Even if Russia didn’t put their heavy thumb on the scale, even if they released all DNC and RNC emails in a spirit of open information, its still a cyberattack at the heart of our democracy.
So of course Obama had to respond. To not do so would have been extremely, well, feckless, as the right likes to absurdly accuse him of being. The only reason anyone can accuse Obama of acting irrationally or unjustly is if they no longer want to talk about the election. And that’s why Putin can act the way he does.
He knows that Trump has two options. He can continue the sanctions, and continue pressuring Russia, but to do so would mean an explicit acknowledgment that his election was something other than a glorious and nearly-unanimous upswelling of popular support. Remember, this is a man who still seems to believe he won the popular vote if it weren’t for all that voter fraud. He is constinutionally unable to believe that he is anything other than the world’s biggest and most beloved winner. That’s the heart of his personality.
He has a pretty easy path here, if he wants to have anything similar to a normal Presidency. Accept what happened, continue to treat Russia as an actor who was hostile to our democratic processes, but still claim (with plausibility) that it had nothing to do with his victory. That’s the smart way to do things.
But remember that this Presidency, so far (at least if it is any reflection of the campaign, or indeed his entire wretched life) is dictated entirely by his own ego. Continuing these sanctions is an admission that there was something hinky about his victory, and that can’t happen. That’s why he has been being so vague about moving on to “bigger and better things” while standing next to Don King.
Because that’s his second option, and it is the one that Putin is counting on. He knows that every day with unbalanced relations is one in which the election is being tacitly relitigated. And he knows that is the one thing Trump doesn’t want. So he will give Trump the option of “resetting” our relations. This might not even make Trump look too bad, in a sense, since the entire campaign his one consistent foreign policy belief was that it would be “nice” to get along with Russia. So he can even claim continuity of principle, if one ignores the unpleasantness of every single intelligence agency believing that the foundation of our democracy was attacked.
And he will most likely ignore it, and he’ll do his “no one really knows what’s going on shtick”, which comeing from him has the ring of truth, since he neither knows nor cares what’s going on with anything outside his mirror, and it will somehow get subsumed into partisan politics. “Well, Democrats believe that the interference into our elections by Russia is a bad thing, but that’s just because they lost!” Relations will “normalize”. And Putin will have won.
There’s really no other way to look at Putin’s actions. He knows that he can wait three weeks and then have a President whose own ego won’t allow him to keep up the pressure, because the pressure involves his ego. Ask yourself this: do you really think Putin would have behaved so placidly if Hillary had won? Of course not. Because he would have known there wasn’t an incoming POTUS so in line with his ambitions.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that this maybe somehow shakes up Donald Trump. We’ll know exactly what kind of Presidency we’ll have by how he handles this. If it’s what I think, that he’ll quickly normalize things (with a decent window, of course) and that everyone on the right will praise him for doing so, we know that we have a country and a party whose beliefs are dictated by one terrible man’s impossible ego. But if I’m wrong, maybe Trump can be a somewhat less abnormal President, even as everything about his Presidency continues to be awful.
Putin won, and reflected through the nonsense prism of our time, made Obama look small (for doing what every President would have–should have–done). But if Obama looks small, it is because he’s pushing an enormous boulder left to him by his succssor, a man who is giving Vladimir Putin the Christmas of his dreams.