President Vladimir Putin chose his moment carefully. On July 28, he ordered the cutting of 750 personnel in American diplomatic missions in Russia and the seizure of the U.S. embassy dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. He did so after Congress had approved new sanctions on Russia but before President Donald Trump had signed the sanctions bill into law.
Putin sent a signal that he was punishing the America of the United States Congress, not the America of Trump, his hypothetical friend, that he was separating the good sheep from the wicked goats. He indicated that he was still flattering the vanity of Trump and trying to avoid a personal quarrel between the two men. And by postponing the punishment measures until September 1, he was giving the U.S. leader a chance to back away from conflict.
On August 2, Trump still chose to sign the bill, probably fearing the humiliation of a vote overturning his veto. But the Russian tactic worked in that Trump tweeted his anger not at Russia but at his opponents in Congress, saying the next day, “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!”
Russia is regularly accused of trying to split the West. Mostly this is a matter of drawing conclusions from the evidence (for example, that Russia supports Brexit) or of unverified intelligence briefings. Putin’s latest action was something different: an open diplomatic gambit playing on internal American contradictions.
Moscow responded to Trump’s sign-off on the sanctions bill with a tweet from the office of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, saying, “The Trump Administration has demonstrated its complete impotence by handing over its executive powers to Congress in the most humiliating manner.” The tweet came from Medvedev because Putin does not use social media and did not want to spoil his personal channel of communication with Trump. Believing that others act as they do, the men in the Kremlin placed a bet on the personal relationship between leaders. That trick can work for a time with men like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, but it failed with the America of Trump.
Putin called the new sanctions a cynical ploy. His thinking is easy to read. When Russia took over Crimea and stoked a conflict in the Donbas, it understood that it was doing something exceptional and was prepared for an exceptional response. But since then there has been a long pause in overt hostilities between the two sides. Last year, Moscow chose not to react to the actions of outgoing president Obama, who responded to allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election by expelling Russian diplomats and seizing Russian diplomatic property.
To the Russians, the imposition of new sanctions, long after the election, looks to have been driven by domestic U.S. politics and resembles a second round of punishment for the same alleged crime. The declaration of CIA Director Mike Pompeo that “We are decades into the Russians trying to undermine American democracy” is seen as confirmation of this. Did Pompeo mean that Russia was acting like this when Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin were in power? And if he is correct, why did the United States choose to impose new sanctions now?
Previously, these election-time skirmishes have melted away after polling day. In 2008, Putin told CNN that the Republicans had encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to attack South Ossetia so as to boost the rating of Republican presidential candidate John McCain. McCain, who criticized Obama for being too soft on Russia, could reasonably have regarded this as Russian interference in the election to boost the chances of Barack Obama. In March 2009, his secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sergei Lavrov were already pressing the “reset” button.
The Kremlin would do well to reflect on this. Obama managed to “reset” relations with Russia, despite being accused of appeasing Moscow—something Trump could never dream of doing. The professional politician, working with government institutions, was able to act more decisively and autonomously than Trump the rebel and outsider.
Moscow suspects that it is being punished both for actions long in the past and for an election result which it influenced only indirectly. These suspicions are stoked by comments in Congress which suggest that Russia is an “adversary” not just because of its interference in the elections and its post-Soviet neighbors but because it still dares to possess nuclear weapons which threaten the United States.
This makes the punishment against Russia deeper but also lessens its political impact. The Russian leadership now regards sanctions not as an issue for negotiations and potential compromises but as a gloomy fixture in life which will not change Russia’s foreign policy posture.
The new sanctions regime can be seen as a victory of McCain not just over Trump but over Obama as well. The difference this time is that McCain has the support of many American liberals and Democrats.
But the sanctions are also damaging another principle of the Obama presidency, the unity between the United States and Europe.
Obama consulted closely with the United States’ European allies over the first round of sanctions on Russia in 2014, and managed to preserve a unified position. He thought it was important for the United States to be seen to keeping the moral high ground, and that sanctions should be seen as an assertion of shared values, not a show of strength against an adversary. After all, Obama was not an enthusiastic supporter of sanctions. In other aspects of his foreign policy, he also showed himself to be an advocate of ending isolationist policies, whether it be against Iran, Cuba, or Myanmar, preferring engagement to isolation.
This latest round of U.S. sanctions was not coordinated with European allies. Many in the EU—and not just traditionally Russian-leaning countries such as Greece, Hungary, and Italy but leading figures such as the president of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker—expressed concern that the sanctions could hurt the gas trade from Russia on which much of Europe depends.
The overall result may have an ironic twist. It may be that U.S. politicians were so focused on punishing Trump and Russia that they forgot about their friends in Europe. And by doing so, they may have created exactly the divisions between Europe and the United States that Russia is said to be seeking to sow.