Obama administration becomes target of Russian ridicule

Obama administration becomes target of Russian ridicule

Taunted by Moscow, Kerry chooses to look the other way while pursuing a diplomatic dialogue.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest is used to being a political target — but not a military one.Moscow’s Embassy in Washington tweeted an image Wednesday juxtaposing a photo of an anti-aircraft missile system alongside — and pointed at — the White House spokesman’s face.

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Speaking to reporters later that day, Earnest laughed off the tweet. “I have no idea what message they were trying to send,” he said. But the tweet’s text was clear enough: It was a warning to the U.S. about its military role in Syria. “Russia will take every defensive measure necessary to protect its personnel,” it read in part.

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The bellicose tweet was just the latest example of an increasingly snarky, sarcastic and even personal, Russian tone toward the U.S. “The negative pivot by Russia is palpable,” said Obama’s former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul. Yet Kerry and President Barack Obama continue to pursue dialogue with Moscow, convinced that the only thing worse than talking through the escalating insults is not talking at all.

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Even as Earnest fielded questions about the menacing tweet, the State Department’s top Russia official, Victoria Nuland, was in Moscow to discuss Ukraine. And Secretary of State John Kerry was on the phone Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, discussing Syria two days after the U.S. declared an end to formal talks with Russia aimed at establishing a cease-fire there.
“Engagement continues,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner conceded Wednesday, insisting, to the confusion of State Department reporters, that Kerry’s informal talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are distinct from the defunct Syria cease-fire talks.

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Obama officials insist they are not naïve about Russia’s intentions or trustworthiness. But critics warn that the Obama administration is letting itself become a punching bag for Russia’s obnoxious diplomatic salvos, and that its continuing efforts at dialogue may only signal weakness that invites more Russian bombast.
Kerry “has done a lot of damage to his public standing with his handling of these cease-fire talks — and Russian snark, like snark everywhere, seeks out the vulnerable,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who served as ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union under President Bill Clinton.
“The Russian foreign ministry might not beat up on Kerry quite so much if they didn’t see people beating up on him here at home and elsewhere.” Sestanovich added.
The U.S.-Russia relationship has become a central issue in the 2016 presidential race, largely because of Donald Trump’s unconventionally friendly views toward Moscow. At a Tuesday rally in Arizona, however, Trump bashed Kerry’s stymied efforts to work with Moscow, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has no respect” for Obama.
Analysts say Russia’s increasingly mocking tone is part of its larger emphasis on propaganda and information warfare online and via Kremlin-funded news outlets like RT and Sputnik. Russian officials aren’t just lashing out — they understand that colorful insults and wisecracks travel faster on social media and news aggregation sites.
The result has been what even jaded Russia observers call a troubling new post-Cold War low in dialogue between Washington and Moscow, despite the Obama administration’s efforts to keep dialogue alive.
Gleefully leading the charge has been Russia’s foreign ministry — particularly its spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, who the Moscow Times has said is responsible for “a dramatic vulgarization” of her ministry’s official tone, and who once told an interviewer she speaks “the language of the blogosphere.”
Zakharova was the likely author of her ministry’s statement after the U.S. cutoff of formal dialogue with Moscow about Syria this week, a short-lived cease-fire in Aleppo collapsed amid mutual recriminations.

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The colorful diatribe declared that the U.S. “is ready to make a deal with the devil” and “to join forces with outright terrorists who want to turn the tide of history and who are enforcing their inhuman values in the occupied territories.”
In May, Zakharova modified and read aloud a poem poking fun of Kerry’s repeated visits to Moscow. Adapted from the Robert Burns poem “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” it was titled, “His Heart Is in Moscow.”
And last month, after Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, pleaded at the United Nations for the lives of civilians in besieged Aleppo, Syria, Zakharova responded with a sarcastic invitation for the American to join her on an expenses-paid trip to the country.
“Don’t be frightened. Nobody will lay a finger on you in my presence,” Zahkarova wrote on Facebook. “Unless, of course, your guys don’t again ‘mistakenly’ strike the wrong target.”
“Russia’s Zakharova Viciously Mocks America’s U.N. Ambassador,” cheered a Sputnik headline.
Behind closed doors, Obama officials say, Russian diplomats take a more sober tone. Kerry’s constant interaction with Lavrov, with whom he sometimes speaks several times a week, are “professional,” said a senior State Department official. “That doesn’t mean things don’t get heated now and then, but I’ve never seen either of them let it get personal.”
The official added that the U.S. strives not to respond in kind to Russia’s taunts. “We work very hard to be straightforward. No snark. No sarcasm. Nothing shrill. It’s beneath us, and, frankly, beneath the seriousness of the issues to fall into that sort of behavior,” said one senior State Department official.

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Kerry revealed his personal frustration with Russia’s antics at the U.N. last month as the U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement in Syria fell apart. Kerry was infuriated by a Russian defense ministry spokesman’s claim that a humanitarian convoy that the U.S. says was bombed by Russian or Syrian planes last month must have caught fire — or, as Kerry derisively rephrased it, “spontaneously combusted.”
“This is not a joke,” Kerry fumed. “We’re in serious business here.”
Zakharova struck again on Thursday, suggesting that a Wednesday mortar attack on Russia’s embassy in Damascus was the result of recent comments by her State Department counterpart, John Kirby. During a Sept. 29 briefing, Kirby warned Moscow that its Syria intervention could invite domestic terrorist attacks and that Moscow “will continue to send troops home in body bags.”
In another Facebook post, Zakharova retorted that Kirby seemed to be encouraging terrorist attacks on Russia with what she called a “‘get ’em’ command.”
After Wednesday’s attack on the Russian compound, she told reporters in Moscow that “Russia sees a link between the U.S. State Department’s ‘body bags’ threat and this week’s shelling of Russia’s Embassy in Damascus.”
Even as Russia shuts down other joint efforts with Washington — this week the Kremlin announced the suspension of two cooperative nuclear energy agreements with Washington — the Obama administration continues to promote dialogue.
“We want to work with Russia,” Kerry said during remarks in Brussels on Wednesday.
But, he added: “People who are serious about making peace behave differently from the way Russia has chosen to behave.”
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/obama-john-kerry-russian-ridicule-229259#ixzz4MQ4az7m4
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