MOSCOW To close out 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized several actions in response to the Russian governments aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber operations aimed at the recent American presidential election, including expelling Russian envoys and closing Russian governmentowned compounds. These steps, described by some analysts as the biggest retaliation since the Cold War, described a variety of reactions in Russia. While a number of Russian commentators on social networks habitually blamed Obamas administration for weakness of reaction and hostility against Russia, the Kremlin selected a different approach. In an unusual act of moderation, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to postpone retaliation in the said he hoped that U.S.-Russia relations will improve under the new Trump administration.

Normally more combative, pro-Kremlin media adjusted the denial approach they previously adopted in response to hacking accusations to still follow their traditional propaganda pattern: first, deny the accusations; second, distort current realities by multiplying alternative theories. While continuing to refute any possibility of Russian engagement in the hacking assaults, Russian officials and pro-Kremlin media have responded to allegations by proliferating alternative possibilities of the hackers origin, indirectlyaccusing the White House and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, among others, of tampering with the process.

As Russia rang in the new year, most commentators here reacted to U.S. accusations and sanctions with what has already become a traditional response to similar developings derision and mock of the Obama administrations actions. Most bloggers and pundits ridiculed the alleged weakness of the U.S. response, suggesting that the expulsion of the Russian envoys and the closing of their dachas( a term to describe Russias summer residential cottage) had little to do with preventing future cyberattacks, and looked like a hysterical and a very pitiful step by the outgoing American president.

The pro-Kremlin nationalist publicist Egor Kholmogorov, for example, suggested that, as a revenge for everything, Obama took our ambassadors cottage … Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergey Markov described the sanctions as, an indecent decision and just a purposeful dirty trick for diplomats, whose households will no longer enjoy a summertime mansion and are expelled from the country when all the tickets are sold out straight-out. One can only guess, if as his next step Obama will order his secret services to shit in front of the Russian Embassy and Consulate General. Or dump garbage in front of them.Other Kremlin-aligned experts also hinted at the possibility of escalation in Ukraine prior to Obama leaving office. Yet the majority of them believe that Obama scarcely has any effective means left to seriously hurt Russia, and if any of those are to be administered, they will likely be cancelled by Trump.

Most commentators here reacted to U.S. accusations and sanctions with what has already become a traditional response to similar developings derision and mock of the Obama administrations actions.

Only a few Russian liberal analysts suggested that international sanctions may be a wise step to counter the countrys snooping activity in the United States. Since both the pro-West and pro-Kremlin Russian audiences tend to doubt that the Russian hack assaults took place at all, Obamas acts of reprisal were perceived as ungrounded and hostile. Even liberal pro-Western analysts viewed the new sanctions as a spiteful reaction to the electoral defeat of the Democrat. Some went as far as to suggest that we saw, a different Obama a petty, ugly Obama as president of a great country, behaving like some kind of mix between Maduro and some Mongol potentates, trying to settle personal ratings. Similar aggressive and denigrating reactions filled social networks( see this link to a news post about Obama sanctions at one of the pro-Kremlin websites that accumulates a number of similar hostile and aggressive anti-U.S. remarks from the Russian audience ), where many commentators said that the new sanctions, is no more than degrading to Obama and his own American people. Others posted on social media that it was unwise for Obama to rock the situation, yet said they hope that the odds of the lifting of sanctions under the new Trump presidency are still high.

Sputnik Photo Agency/ Reuters
Since many doubt Russian hack assaults took place at all, Obama's retaliation was seen as unwarranted and hostile in Russia.

In an unusual contrast to the reaction of Russian society, the response from Russias bureaucrats and Kremlin-controlled media was more moderated. While endlessly denying any Russian engagement in the cyberattacks, the Kremlin decided to keep prospects of improving relations with the upcoming Trumps administration. On past occasions such as these, the Kremlin retaliated against Western actions( aka the ban on the adoption of the Russian orphans as a response to Magnitsky Act, or the introduction of a food ban in response to the European sanctions ). And initially Russias reaction followed that forceful pattern. After Obama announced sanctions, Russias Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a comparatively harsh statement threatening to retaliate against the United States by expelling the employees of the U.S. embassy and consulate general. The MFA spokesman Maria Zakharova called the Obama administration, a group of foreign policy losers, embittered and short-sightedwhodont lose is expected to be do something bad for relations with Russia they previously destroyed.Putins press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, described the U.S. actions as clumsy steps and, elephant behavior in a China shop. Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Russias Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, labeled the move as abrupt and destructive steps and , not even the agony of the lame duck, but of political cadavres.

Yet shortly thereafter Putin miraculously chose to withhold, announcing that no retaliatory expulsions of diplomats or closing of Russia-based compounds would take place for now. As it was allegedly reported, in an unusual act of kindness, Putin even ran as far as to invite the children of American envoys to the Christmas tree in the Kremlin. Such a peaceful step by the Russian president was glorified by many( both pro-Kremlin and liberal) observers in Russia, who underlined the role reversal due to perfectly inadequate behaviour of Obama and the brilliant, adequate Putins behavior, as well as President-elect Donald Trump himself.

In reality, however, the absence of reply emphasized Moscows high expectations and confidence in the U.S.-Russia relations reset under the upcoming Trumps presidency. The majority of pro-Kremlin commentators in Russia currently believe that the new U.S. administration will be able to correct Obamas dirty tricks and improve the relations with Russia. Hence, a wiser replies from the Kremlin perspective is to not retaliate against Obamas sanctions and allow Moscow more flexibility in communicating with Trumps new administration.

A wiser response from the Kremlin perspective is to not retaliate against Obamas sanctions and allow Moscow more flexibility in communicating with Trumps new administration.

So what should observers build of these various reactions from Russia? Use the available research on the countrys disinformation campaign, it is possible to highlight common techniques Moscow employs in response to international finger-pointing. In my research I especially stress a two-step Kremlin approach in communicating the uncomfortable reality to the domestic audience( be it a downing of MH17 by the Russian-controlled separatists or accusations of Russias cyberattacks ). The first step( dismiss) is silence and denial. Following the crash of MH17, most media worldwide covered the issue nonstop, but not so much in Russia where MH17 was a backstory. Similarly, the McLaren report on Russias Olympic fraud was presented by the Russian media as baseless and empty. Likewise, in the case of the DNC leaks and Russian cyberattacks accusations, the issues were covered by the Russian state-controlled media merely somewhat intermittently and irregularly, while the very potential of Russias engagement in the cyberattacks has been denied and consistently ridiculed.

The second step( distort and distract) consists in media and politicians offering to the domestic audience alternative theories of the plane accident or origins of the hackers , no matter how absurd. The expectation is that the public faced with diversity of explanations will eventually get tired of figuring out the truth and give up on it altogether. In the case of MH17, the Russian media implied that Ukrainian army rockets or a Ukrainian fighter jet might have downed the plane, and that the Ukrainian army might have mistaken it for Putins presidential jet. It is precisely the same plot that the Russian media is now following with regards to the cyberattacks coverage. Several news broadcasts and country commentators now offer alternative theories of possible performers behind the cyberattacks.

According to my research, Russia applied a similar tactic to the downing of MH17.

MFA spokesman Maria Zakharova, for example, lately suggested that the lies about Russian hackers were launched by[ the] Obama administration six months ago, in an attempt to assist the right nominee. Another popular hypothesi involves references to Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and a close associate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The pro-Kremlin outlets reference Murrays statement that he received the leaks directly from a clandestine sources in America and not from the Russian hacks. Yet perhaps the most original hypothesi is even more conspiratorial and based upon the Georgia secretary of states claim that a U.S. Department of Homeland Security associated IP address attempted unsuccessfully to breach the firewall of Georgias computer systems. Although this information was later covered as likely false in the United States, the Russian pro-Kremlin media still hint that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security might have been behind the cyberattacks and placing the blame on Russia to cover its ways. Taking the unverified reports that favor the Russian viewpoint, even conspiratorial ones, and presenting them as truth has become a common Russian propaganda approach. For example, in 2016 both Russian media and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continued to chastise Germany over an alleged rape of a 13 -year-old girl by migrants, even after the German officials proved the claim false.

The practice of denial and twisting of reality in the case of the Russian cyberattacks is then nothing new and constitutes the usual Kremlin propaganda toolkit for the covering of unpleasant news. If anything, this common self-defense technique should attain observers more skeptical about the Kremlin side of the narrative, because it follows a pre-planned narrative. It would also be interesting to see whether similar arguments against the possibility of the Russian hacks will be used as well by the U.S. president-elect. Donald Trump has so far denied the possibility of Russias engagement in the cyberattacks against the United States and largely sided with Russias explains, even seemingly preferring Julian Assanges view over U.S. intel.

MFA spokesman Maria Zakharova suggested that the ‘lies about Russian hackers' were ‘launched by[ the] Obama administration six months ago, in an attempt to assist the right candidate.'

Moreover, as pointed out by a Russian expert and journalist Jill Dougherty, Trumps own approach to the cyberattacks issue is quite similar to Russias:

If you are beginning to see a pattern in Trumps approach to intelligence, you probably are right. Confusion can be very useful. Just overwhelm people with random believes, hypothesis, rants, etc and they soon tire of trying to figure it all out. They come to the conclusion that something is amiss. Sowing seeds of doubt can be an aim in and of itself.

Both Trump and Russia seem to agree on this. Whether Trump will continue following this line by adopting Russias narrative and blaming U.S. organizations or become a big fan of the U.S. intelligence hypothesi, may shed some light on his relationship to the Kremlin.

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