Obama's Russia sanctions put President-elect Donald Trump in a tough position

Vladimir Putin
Sergei Karpukhin | Reuters
Vladimir Putin

Will the sanctions and diplomatic expulsions President Obama has just ordered against Russia in retaliation for its alleged interference in the 2016 election have any effect? It depends which playing field you care most about.

Politically, this is winner for the outgoing president on a lot of levels. First, it solidifies President Obama as a hero to Democrats and liberals who believe that Russia played a big role in helping Donald Trump win the White House. This may seem like a bit of "sore loser" behavior or preaching to a left wing choir, but sometimes the choir needs music.

Second, it will endear him to quite a few Republicans and conservatives who have long been wary of Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately commented on the sanctions, saying they were justified, (if overdue), and that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a friend of the United States.

Third, it puts President-elect Donald Trump in a tough position of having to either defend an unpopular Russian regime or abandon his calls for better relations with Moscow. After all, politics is war and just because President Obama is leaving the battlefield it doesn't mean he has to go without giving his fellow soldiers a weapon or two.

But this is where all the effectiveness ends. Diplomatically and economically, these new sanctions and expulsions won't change a thing. As noted Putin critic and Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder said on CNBC just after the sanctions were announced, this is all "too little, too late."

The Russians will simply replace the expelled diplomats with legions of others with the same worldview and allegiance to Putin. Hacking attacks will continue. And Russia will not be deterred from interfering in other ways as well.

Russia responds to strength, and that's been true of Russia during its Soviet and post-Soviet ages. Simply put, diplomatic expulsions and a few economic restrictions are not seen by Moscow as examples of strength.

Indeed, the Russian Embassy in the UK responded with this tweet.

Worse, the retaliations by the Obama team may serve to boost the myth of Russian king-making abilities worldwide. Even if we can eventually prove that Moscow was responsible for those hacks of the Democratic National Committee emails, can anyone really even name a single "smoking gun" email that sealed the deal against Hillary Clinton? Did the voters really learn any new or real damaging information?

The answers to all of the above questions are "no," but now a hack that yielded little or no information anyone really cared about has blown up into an international diplomatic incident. Yes, President Obama and the Democrats are scoring some political points right now and none of them are likely to ever have to pay a personal or professional price for these moves. But for the rest of us not running for office or worrying about our approval ratings, this is a big fat nothing.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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