MOSCOW — Your geopolitical nemesis is suffering a political meltdown and says you’re partly to blame. Angry legislators have slapped you with new sanctions, which their president says he will sign. What’s a resurgent autocracy to do?
In Moscow, it’s time for some game theory.
Regardless of whether the Kremlin believes its own denials of interfering in the 2016 elections, there is one undeniable truth: Russia is now Washington’s greatest political foe. Understanding that President Trump is “tied hand and foot,” as one foreign policy hawk here put it, Moscow is weighing options for retaliation.
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After a dalliance on the Trump train, Russia is once again channeling the ruthless realism that drives its political id, and embracing its role as antihero.
“Okay, you think we’re bad guys, we’re going to be bad guys, and we’ll see whether you like it or not,” said Konstantin Eggert, a television political commentator, describing the Kremlin thinking.
Russia’s decision on Friday to expel dozens, perhaps hundreds, of American diplomats and other embassy staff marks the first salvo in retaliation to American sanctions that promises to be unpredictable and fraught with emotion. It is built on the frustrations of a Russian leader who perhaps thought that a Trump presidency could change everything, and then watched those hopes dissolve in scandal and recriminations.
The Russian establishment has been angry with the West before but rarely so filled with contempt. It is far worse than several years ago, when tensions rose to fever pitch over a pro-Western revolution in neighboring Ukraine, sold on Russian television as a nationalist uprising with echoes of fascism.
“No one was scared by the first  sanctions, it was almost fun,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a veteran member of Vladimir Putin’s press pool, who co-wrote a 2000 book of interviews with the Russian president and traveled with him to Finland recently. “Now there’s a sense among Russian officials that everything is very serious. And they’re all looking at Vladimir Putin to see what to do.”
A common adage about Putin is that he is a canny tactician but a poor strategist. He has taken the upper hand in conflicts with neighbors such as Ukraine and Georgia, and in so doing, surrounded himself with enemies. With Trump’s growing political impotence, Russia’s cyber-intervention in the 2016 elections now seems similarly pyrrhic. “I don’t think he knows how this ends,” Kolesnikov said. “The rules are now being made up on the fly.”
Predictions for autumn are frank: economic war. “If the bill is approved and most probably it will be adopted, then we will inevitably enter the stage of what we call the Cold War,” said Andrei Sidorov, an expert on international politics at Moscow State University and one of several hawkish Russian analysts who sat down for a roundtable discussion at a state news agency recently. “And the Cold War means various responses.”
Putin has said they will depend on the version of the bill signed by Trump. Kommersant, a Moscow daily plugged into Kremlin and foreign policy circles, suggested some options: cutting titanium or enriched uranium exports to the United States,which could harm the American airline and uranium industries; blocking U.S. diplomatic initiatives such as a U.N. vote on new North Korea sanctions and cooperation in Syria; and seizing corporate property or even kicking out U.S. companies such as Google or Microsoft.
Moscow knows it’s outgunned in a trade war. It generally fights back by using its own market as a weapon, whether by imposing sanctions on European food imports in 2014 or, in a more cynical moment in 2013, by banning Americans from adopting Russian children (Trump discussed the adoption ban, and probably the associated sanctions, with Putin during an after-dinner meeting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg this month).
“Of course it’s very difficult for Russia to do anything to harm the U.S. interests unless Russia is ready to take steps which will harm ourselves,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, an influential group of Russian foreign policy experts.
Hawks poring over the U.S. sanctions say Moscow needs to break the rules. “It says that by no means shall sanctions apply to NASA projects,” said Nikolay Platoshkin, a former Russian diplomat and professor at the Moscow University of the Humanities, referring to the bill passed by the Senate. “Here we go, a perfect tip, let them apply [to NASA], let American astronauts ride horses to the International Space Station.”
One idea voiced by the Kremlin is to expand cooperation with Europe, and possibly with China, to counterbalance U.S. power. European leaders have expressed anger over the planned U.S. sanctions, saying they could backfire, dealing a blow to transatlantic efforts to curb Russian aggression against Ukraine and sparking a trade war between Europe and the United States.
“Of course for our entire lives we’ve held onto the hope that Europe is close to us and will align in its interest with us against the Americans,” said Sidorov. But he was doubtful that the current crisis would bring about this schism.
Meanwhile, dialogue between the countries is minimal. American diplomats can’t get their Russian diplomats to agree on facts about Moscow’s participation in the election hack, and expect Russians to accept the testimonials given by American intelligence chiefs as evidence of Russia’s complicity. The Russians have demanded evidence, which the Americans say would compromise sources and methods of intelligence gathering. The impasse is total. Conflict is assured.