Analysis

'An incredible chess move': Putin checkmates Obama after symbolic sanctions manoeuvre

U.S. President Barack Obama's order Thursday to expel 35 Russian diplomats and close down two Russian compounds was more a symbolic gesture and will likely have little impact on Vladimir Putin's government.

Obama ordered expulsion of diplomats, Putin invited U.S. children to New Year's party

Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with Ben van Beurden, chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell, in 2014. Putin's response to U.S. President Barack Obama's latest sanctions is 'an incredible chess move,' says analyst Lauren Goodrich. (Reuters)

It was one of the most brilliant geopolitical chess moves in over a decade, and it involved doing nothing, according to Eurasia senior analyst Lauren Goodrich.

An expert on Russian politics at the intelligence firm Stratfor, Goodrich was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin's response, or lack thereof, to the recent sanctions imposed on his country by U.S. President Barack Obama, 

Instead of retaliating for Obama's order Thursday to expel 35 Russian diplomats and close down two Russian compounds, Putin insisted he would not reciprocate.

And, for good measure, he invited the children of U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to the New Year's and Christmas parties in the Kremlin.

"Putin deciding not to retaliate and say I'm going to wait for the Trump administration, delegitimizes Obama's decision on one side and then also puts extra pressure on Trump to act more conciliatory when he comes in," said Goodrich.

"It's an incredible chess move."

Allegations of hacking

Obama's actions were in response to allegations that Russia is to blame for two significant email hacks during the U.S. election campaign. The FBI and CIA claim Russia was attempting to influence the campaign to help Donald Trump win the White House.

The president's response was met by faint praise from senior Senate Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who said it was "long overdue" but a "small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy." The senators said they will lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions.

Meanwhile, president-elect Trump, who has been criticized for being much too cozy with Putin, said it was "time for our country to move on to bigger and better things." He also praised Putin on Friday, tweeting, "Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!

Goodrich said while the sanctions "are not detrimental, don't hurt Russia and don't really put much pressure on Russia," Obama had limited options.

Russia's cyber capabilities are mostly inside the country, making it difficult to sanction them in any meaningful way, she said.

"Russia has protected itself very meaningfully over the past few years in which it's hard to figure out what do you sanction in order to crack down on Russia."

Obama meets with Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico in 2012. Obama's sanctions this week came in response to allegations that Russia is to blame for two significant email hacks during the U.S. election campaign. (Reuters)

The sanctions announced by Obama, then, are part of a strategy to make a public decree about Russia's actions and Russia's meddling in the electoral process, she said. This is of particular importance with the European election cycle next year and fears that Moscow may want to interfere and create instability in Western Europe.

"The U.S. wanted to make a very public statement on this is what Russia is doing. This is the harm it can cause," Goodrich said.

Concerns Trump will ease sanctions

As well, the Obama administration, concerned that Trump may start easing up on some of the previous sanctions levied on Russia, decided to add another layer, Goodrich said.

"It's much more difficult for the new administration to pick down to the important sanctions if they have these new sanctions on top of them."

Russia, so far, has been able to weather those previous sanctions, imposed in 2014 against its energy and financial sector, Goodrich said.

But that won't last, Goodrich said, and in the years ahead, Russia is going to need Western technology and investment again.

"The sanctions that Obama put on Russia in 2014 are the real sanctions," Goodrich said. "Obama really hit Putin where it hurts."

But Robert Kaufman, a political scientist who specializes in U.S. foreign policy at Pepperdine University, disagreed.

"It's too little, it's too late," Kaufman said about Obama's recent measures. Indeed, the president's whole approach to Russia and Putin's regime has been rather feckless, Kaufman suggested.

"The response to Putin is more out of personal pique that Putin dared to undermine Hillary Clinton's election chances rather than any concrete, strategic, programmatic response."

Obama didn't do anything when it counted to impose the types of sanctions that would have had real bite, Kaufman said. The 2014 sanctions may cause inconvenience, but haven't done anything to contain Putin, he said.

President-elect Donald Trump, in response to the sanctions imposed on Russia, said it was 'time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.' (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

"If you're really serious about stopping Putin, you've got to go after their energy sector, banking sector,  you have to arm Ukraine with defensive arms ... and start calling Russia for what it is."

At the beginning of his administration, Obama sought to "reset" relations with Moscow. But Kaufman believes that despite Russian geopolitical aggression, Obama continued to adhere to that principle.

"During his administration, right up until the end, he resisted any and all measures to abandon the reset even after Russian behaviour literally falsified all of its premises."

"I think even if you are an Obama supporter, this last-minute flurry of petulant diplomacy doesn't do any good. This is Donald Trump's issue now. Not Obama's."

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers a wide range of topics, including Canadian and U.S. politics.

With files from The Associated Press