With the storybook towers of the Kremlin glimmering behind him, President Vladimir Putin sounded uncharacteristically whimsical as he delivered his annual New Year’s address.
“Each of us may become something of a magician on the night of the new year,” he said, with a hint of mystery in his voice.
“To do this we simply need to treat our parents with love and gratitude, take care of our children and families, respect our colleagues at work, nurture our friendships, defend truth and justice, be merciful and help those who are in need of support.
“This,” he said, as a smile crossed his face, “is the whole secret.”
It’s not the image many outside Russia have of this former KGB intelligence officer. But this new year, the world witnessed a kinder, gentler Putin — a leader who at his annual state of the nation address in early December insisted: “We are not seeking and have never sought enemies. We need friends.”
Some in the West claim it’s real — or at least hope it is, a chance to set relations back on track with a Russian leader who sees the incoming US president, Donald Trump, as a potential partner.
Putin’s geopolitical judo
Others see in Putin’s charm offensive evidence of “asymmetric diplomacy:” unpredictable geopolitical moves by a black belt judo master, designed to keep his opponents off guard.
For example, look at Putin’s hip throw of President Barack Obama last week. In an effort to punish Russia over alleged hacking in the United States election and to avert future cyberattacks, Obama invoked sanctions against Russia’s top intelligence officials and expelled Russian diplomats from the US.
Everyone expected a tit-for-tat response from Putin. Then, in a dramatic piece of political theater, he said he wouldn’t expel anybody. Instead, he kindly invited the children of Moscow-based American diplomats to a Christmas and New Year celebration at the Kremlin, effectively painting Obama as the Grinch who stole Christmas.
One of Putin’s first forays into asymmetry was during the Crimea crisis in 2014. Instead of deploying its military forces in an open show of defiance, Moscow sent well-trained troops — without insignia — into Ukraine, dubbing them “polite people.”
The expression, with its tongue-in-cheek flavor, soon ended up on T-shirts for sale in Moscow, a point of pride for Russians eager to see their boys pull one over on the West.
Syria: Who’s caught in a quagmire?
In September 2015, Putin again caught the US off guard when he sent military fighter jets to Syria in the first major deployment outside the former Soviet space that Moscow had undertaken since its war in Afghanistan.
Russian officials, at first, described it as a “defensive” move, but it soon became apparent it was far more: a major effort to prevent the collapse of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Obama predicted Putin would be caught in a “quagmire,” but Moscow’s carefully crafted incursion, with massive air power and virtually no ground troops, enabled Syrian forces to capture the key city of Aleppo.
Meanwhile, Obama’s attempts to separate the “moderate” Syrian opposition from ISIS and other terrorist groups was caught in its own quagmire as Russian and Syrian government forces carried out a relentless but effective bombing campaign. Soon, the President-elect, Trump, said he was willing to cooperate with Putin in fighting the No. 1 enemy: international terrorism.
Once again, Obama was elbowed aside as the Russian leader reached around him to grasp Trump’s hand. Trump even raised the possibility of joining Russia in supporting the Assad government. “Syria is fighting ISIS,” he said, “and you have to get rid of ISIS.”
From anti-Americanism to anti-Obamaism
Putin, his top officials and his state-controlled media have employed asymmetric techniques at home in a quick pivot from rabid anti-Americanism to rabid anti-Obamaism. That strategy could make it easier to prepare the Russian public for a cozier relationship with the United States under a Trump administration — if Trump can follow through on his desire to make a “deal” with Putin.
As Putin plays good cop, his senior officials demean Obama as a failure who tried to harm Russia.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has lambasted Obama’s team as “a group of foreign policy losers, bitter and narrow-minded.”
“… (T)he American people were humiliated by their own president,” she said. “Not by international terrorists, not by enemy troops. This time Washington was slapped by (its) own master, who has complicated the urgent tasks for the incoming team in the extreme.”
The Russian Embassy in London even tweeted a drawing of a duck with the word “lame” plastered across its chest. “Everybody, including [the American] people, will be glad to the see last of this hapless [Administration],” it read.
In another technique for putting his opponent off-balance, Putin has denied, in general terms, accusations of Russian hacking in the US election, but subtly tweaking Obama and Democrats, telling the Bloomberg news agency: “Listen, does it even matter who hacked this data? The important thing is the content that was given to the public.”
Putin has tried to leverage US democracy against itself, criticizing the Electoral College system of deciding elections. “There is no true democracy there,” he said at the Valdai Discussion Club, “and you are trying to convince us that we are not (democratic)?”
As he assumes the presidency, will Trump see Putin’s “asymmetric diplomacy” for what it is?
Behind the judo moves, Putin is hampered by an economy hit hard by depressed oil prices and by Western economic sanctions. His charm offensive with Trump may last only as long as he thinks he can get what he wants from the new US President.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Putin’s role at the KGB.