Russia promises to eject U.S. diplomats after the U.S. expelled Russians. David Greene and Rachel Martin talk to NPR’s Lucian Kim and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man of many surprises, has delivered yet another one this morning. He is not following the recommendation of his foreign minister to expel American diplomats in response to the U.S. expulsion of Russian diplomats.
In fact, he is inviting the children of American diplomats over to the Kremlin for the holidays. Yesterday, the Obama administration ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and their families. That came in response to the alleged cyberattack during the U.S. election.
GREENE: We’re going to bring in two voices to talk about this. Andrew Weiss, a Russia specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is on the line. He’ll be with us in a moment.
MARTIN: But first, we go to Moscow and NPR’s Lucian Kim who joins us now with the latest. Lucian, this decision by Vladimir Putin to respond in this particular way – or to not respond – was this expected?
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: (Laughter) Absolutely not. Just a little bit earlier, his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, went on state TV. He announced the countermeasures that were really tit for tat for everything the U.S. is planning to do. And since everything is so coordinated in Russia, we expected that, you know, Putin’s approval was just a formality. And now it seems like it’s more like political theater. So this Christmas, it looks like Putin wanted to be Santa Claus and not the Grinch.
MARTIN: So how is Russia responding, in general, to the allegations? I mean, yesterday, the lead U.S. cybersecurity agency put out what it said was solid evidence of Russian government hacking during the campaign – actual lists of computer code said to be clearly of Russian origin. What is Russia – what is the government saying to these allegations?
KIM: There have just been categorical denials about these allegations. Late last night, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, again said that the U.S. sanctions are baseless and a violation of international law. What I think is particularly interesting is that a week ago, Putin had his annual press conference. And he said Democrats are looking for a scapegoat, and he agreed with something that Trump said – that some guy just lying on his sofa could have hacked the Democratic National Committee. What Putin was saying was, really, the most important thing is – what was in the hack? – what was the information that came out? – and not how it came about.
MARTIN: NPR’s Lucian Kim in Moscow who’s following all the developments.
Thanks so much, Lucian.
KIM: Sure thing.
GREENE: OK. We also have Andrew Weiss on the line. He’s vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment here in Washington.
Andrew, good morning.
ANDREW WEISS: Good morning.
GREENE: OK. So let’s think about this. We had spoken earlier this morning. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, seemed to be following what you said was just the protocol. It’s tit for tat. When the United States does something, Russia does it back. That’s normal. Vladimir Putin has thrown that protocol out the window, it seems. And he’s almost playing nice. What’s going on?
WEISS: Well, this is, you know, the master of surprise, Vladimir Putin pulling another quick, you know, and surprising move. He in his statement, which was released so far only in Russian, is leaving open the possibility of retaliating. But he’s saying, for now, we’re going to wait and see what the Trump administration’s Russia policy is about. And he’s basically trying to rubbish anything that the Obama administration is saying or doing. And I think part of the motive here is to say that you can’t trust America – that anything the administration’s going to say about Russia meddling or trying to tip the election in Mr. Trump’s favor is all (unintelligible).
GREENE: So that’s an important point here. I mean, by not responding, he might, in a way, be undermining the credibility of what the U.S. intelligence agencies have been saying. He’s saying, this is not that big a deal. Let’s wait for the truth. I’m not going to overreact here.
WEISS: Absolutely. And we’ve seen nothing from the Trump team or from the president-elect himself suggesting that they buy what the U.S. has been – what the U.S. intelligence agencies have been asserting now for some months, which is that we’ve seen a pattern of Russian interference and outright meddling in our elections.
MARTIN: But then, Andrew, how does that jibe? You say that Putin’s line, the Russian line, is we can’t trust anything the Americans do. But how will that change when Donald Trump is in office? These are two men who’ve spoken very fondly of one another.
WEISS: Up to now, Donald Trump’s Russia policy has been about buttering up the Russians, talking about how great Putin is as a leader, how well Putin compares with President Obama in saying things that simply don’t make a whole lot of sense, which is, you know – this hacking, how could it possibly be the Russians who were doing it? He’s suggested that the Russian nationals who live in Crimea would have been happier living in Russia, not in Ukraine. He said a lot of things up to now which just don’t square with the facts. We’ll see when he becomes president on January 20 whether he changes his tune. I’m not holding my breath.
MARTIN: So what happens to these sanctions that have now been slapped on Russia? On January 20, when Donald Trump comes in, what happens?
WEISS: I’d be surprised if he simply tries to wipe the slate clean. President Obama, yesterday, has designated a series of Russian intelligence agencies – the FSB, the successor to the KGB; the Russian GRU, which is their military intelligence arm – and several senior officials who work for the GRU – I’d be very surprised if the new administration has to now go out of its way to excuse those agencies and basically say all is forgiven. The other thing, which still hasn’t been released, is a detailed account from the U.S. intelligence community in the form of a report to Congress, which President Obama has promised to release before he leaves office. So we’re going to see…
GREENE: So that could put Donald Trump in a difficult position. I mean, you know, sort of deciding what to do with President Obama’s actions if that report comes out and there a lot of details about what Russia did.
WEISS: Exactly. So, you know, I think part of what the U.S. strategy is at the moment is to put as much information out there into the public domain as possible that documents and explains to the American people and to the international community exactly what Russia has been doing, both through its cyberoperations and through its information operations, which are essentially propaganda steps, or motivated active measures trying to influence political activity in another country.
GREENE: Andrew Weiss, can you put this in the context of what people are thinking in Russia? I mean, is Putin at all playing to the domestic audience? Because, I mean, a lot of people say when Putin is the tough guy, a lot of Russians like to see that. This doesn’t seem very tough-guy. But how might this be playing at home for him?
WEISS: The Russian people have, I think, looked at everything that’s been going on through a prism of the-West-is-out-to-get-Russia. And that has been the message the Kremlin seeks to use to create its own legitimacy at home – that we’re a besieged fortress;. We have all these external enemies like United States, and then we have their toadies and their fifth columnists working on the behalf of the United States inside Russia itself. That’s been the script since 2011, 2012 when there were big street demonstrations in Moscow and other major Russian cities.
GREENE: In the 45 seconds or so we have left, what is at stake here? I mean, it’s kind of extraordinary. We have one of these back-and-forths. But we have a new president coming in, a new president who some say is in office because of Russian meddling. He has sort of minimized what Russia did. We have two leaders who are hoping for a better relationship. We have Republicans in Congress who are saying that, you know, that the new administration has to be tough on Russia. There’s a lot on the line here. Right?
WEISS: I think so. I mean, this is an unprecedented situation. We will have every, I think, opportunity, when the new Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense-designate General James Mattis testify for their confirmations hearings, to get a little sense of what the policy’s actually going to be about. But there’s so much ill will and mistrust that’s built up over the past two and a half decades…
WEISS: …I don’t expect U.S.-Russia relations to suddenly change overnight.
GREENE: OK. Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thanks so much.
WEISS: Thank you