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Harsh rhetoric from Moscow over sanctions

Andrey Gurkov
January 1, 2017

Moscow has slammed outgoing US president Barack Obama. He has been called a political failure and vengeful, and accused of wanting to sabotage his successor, Donald Trump.

Moskau US Botschaft Gebäude
US Embassy in MoscowImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Nemenov

The recent bombshell in Washington has been followed by a storm of outrage in Moscow.

Three weeks before the end of his term, US President Barack Obama is punishing Russia for the alleged cyberattacks on the USA by imposing sanctions and expelling 35 diplomats. Russian politicians have not hesitated to express unusually hostile reactions, including former Russian president and now-Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, who wrote on Twitter of "anti-Russian death throes."

Worse than a lame duck

The head of the Russian Standing Committee on Foreign Relations, Konstantin Kosachev, makes use of the same expression. "Forgive me for being harsh, but I just cannot find other words: These are the death throes not even of lame ducks, but of political corpses," he told the Russian state news agency TASS, referring to the American tradition of calling the outgoing president a lame duck. Kosachev, a lawmaker with extensive foreign affairs influence, added that Obama was putting "at stake the US' reputation as a functional state that ensures policy continuity in the process of a change of power."

Maria Zakharova, the official representative of the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, posted on Facebook: "Today, American people were humiliated by their own president." The whole world was currently seeing how "a group of embittered and dimwitted

foreign policy losers" was dealing the USA and its global leadership role a "devastating blow."

'A lot has been bottled up'

Kremlin-allied political scientists are looking for motives behind Obama's decision, but tellingly, they ignore the official explanation: that it was in retaliation for cyberattacks on the USA. For example, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of "Russia in Global Affairs" and chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Barack Obama was finally making use of the chance at the end of his presidency to express his true opinion of several longstanding partners on the international stage.

Obama speaking in front of White House sign
Obama: "death throes of a lame duck"?Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. M. Monsivais

This was previously shown, Lukyanov said, in the unprecedented decision not to veto the UN Security Council resolution opposing the further construction of Israeli settlements. "This is the result of a long aversion of Obama toward (Israeli) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu." Now, according to Luyanov, a 1970s-style diplomatic war against Russia has ensued. "A lot has definitely been bottled up, but the US president could not or did not dare to release it all previously."

'Clear intention to harm Russia'

Pavel Podlesny, a leading expert from the Institute for US and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, is of the opinion that there were many people in the American elite aggrieved by the fact that "the mechanisms for resolving the Syrian conflict were worked out without the USA and that Moscow is one of the mediators in this process." In other words, Podlesny believes that the hacking sanctions are at least partly a reaction to the recent Russian-Turkish-Iranian diplomatic efforts by Vladimir Putin to bring peace to Syria.

He sees the main objective of the sanctions as being "to make as many problems for Russia as possible." Another of Obama's intentions, he says, is to make it hard for his successor, Donald Trump, to start off on the right foot in foreign affairs. Fyodor Lukyanov sees things the same way: Trump and his secretary of state would now "have to begin from a much lower point than before" with regard to US-Russia relations.

USA Donald Trump in Palm Beach
Is Obama just making things hard for Trump to get off to a good start?Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Harnik

However, Lukyanov was working on the assumption that Moscow would respond by expelling the same number of American diplomats, as is usual in such cases. The fact that Vladimir Putin rejected a proposal to this effect from his Foreign Ministry would seem to relativize the fear that relations between the Russian president and his future US counterpart will start off from a substantially worse position.

Difficult situation for Trump

The liberal opposition politician and former parliamentary member Dmitri Gudkov also interprets Obama's decision as being based mainly on domestic motives. It was in the interest of the outgoing administration "to initiate this scandal," he said, partly "to put Trump in a difficult position, as a quick withdrawal of the sanctions after he takes office would fuel rumors that Putin helped him win the elections."

What is more, Gudkov told DW, it was only human for people to try to blame their defeat on others. The Democrats with Obama at their head wanted to find something to justify their election defeat - to their sponsors, among others - Gudkov said. He, too, did not dwell on the real matter at stake: the hacking attacks. He said he was convinced that they were not of as great importance as many were claiming.