In his final days in office, Barack Obama has expelled 35 Russian diplomats. President Putin has countered in his own way. He can afford to ignore the diplomatic bickering, says Miodrag Soric.
Chess is Russia's national sport. President Putin, however, is principally a lover of Asian martial arts, in which - as in chess - you don't always respond to an attack with a counterattack, but by sidestepping the blow. This sporting tactic is currently being applied in the political arena.
Barack Obama expelled Russian diplomats from the United States. Everyone in Washington expected a tit-for-tat response from Russia. But it didn't come. It seems Putin saw the move for what it really was: an attempt by Obama to influence the foreign policy of the incoming US president, Donald Trump.
The Kremlin chief countered in his own way: by inviting the families and children of all American diplomats in Moscow to attend the New Year celebrations in the Kremlin. Moscow will broadcast pictures of this all around the world - and, soon afterwards, pictures of Russian families and children forced to make a precipitous departure from Washington, at this time of year, right before Orthodox Christmas. They'll even have to leave the US on a military plane.
To many people, Putin will come across as a statesman, calm and self-controlled. Obama, on the other hand, will look like someone who can't let go, who's still nursing his animosity toward certain politicians - Vladimir Putin or Benjamin Netanyahu.
An upside-down world
At the heart of this diplomatic bickering is Donald Trump and his future foreign policy. After all, Trump has repeatedly said that he wants better relations with the Kremlin. It will be difficult for him to achieve this aim in a hostile diplomatic climate: Many senators are disinclined to follow Trump on his pro-Russian course.
On the contrary: Leading conservative politicians are calling for further, more severe penalties to be imposed on Russia, and reject Rex Tillerson as America's new secretary of state. Trump nominated Tillerson in part because he stands for a new beginning in relations with Russia. However, in order to preside over the State Department, he needs to gain the Senate's approval in the weeks after Trump takes office.
Meanwhile, Obama's time is running out. As long as he's still in office he will try to drive a wedge between the different camps in the opposing party and alienate as many Republicans as possible from Trump. Obama's aim, which is a legitimate one, is to save as much of his political legacy as possible.
So what will happen next? Trump will have to defer his plans to improve relations with Russia for a few weeks. His priority is to get the Senate to approve his cabinet. Putin understands that. He'll wait, and will help Trump wherever he can with public statements.
The times may be changing – but chess is still Russia's national sport.
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