Saturday,25 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Saturday,25 May, 2019
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trump signs Russia sanctions

Trump’s stated goal of improving relations with Moscow seems to have fallen by the wayside as he attempts to stabilise his rocky presidency, writes Amr Abdel-Ati

اقرأ باللغة العربية

The Russia sanctions bill that was passed by both houses of Congress in order to punish Moscow for its alleged meddling in US elections and its involvement in the crises in Ukraine and Syria has numerous implications. A sign of the general trend is already apparent in the retaliatory measure the Kremlin took before Trump signed the bill into law, namely ordering 755 US diplomats to leave Russia by 1 September and taking possession of US diplomatic properties in Russia. The following are the primary consequences of the US action:

- Improving US-Russian relations has been obstructed. Before Trump assumed office, the signs were that Washington and Moscow would grow closer under Trump, reversing years of deterioration in that relationship under the Obama administration. Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin on numerous occasions during his electoral campaign and pledged to work to improve bilateral ties with Moscow and to remedy the sources of tension that had affected this relation since the end of the Cold War. However, six months after being sworn into office, US-Russian relations have taken another nosedive and Trump, himself, has come under fire for allegedly colluding with Moscow during his campaign in order to secure a victory over his rival, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

- Putin lost his wager on Trump. The Russian president had placed considerable stock on the prospects that his US counterpart would treat Russia as an effective and valuable power in the international order, especially as concerns affairs in Europe and the Middle East. He looked forward to closer and stronger relations because of the many international concerns and crises that compelled them to work together. However, the passage of the sanctions bill made it clear that Trump is incapable of dealing with Moscow in the manner that Putin had envisioned and that this will remain the case for years to come.

- Russian reciprocation: Putin did not retaliate when Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US on 29 December 2016 in response to the alleged Russian cyber attack that enabled Trump to emerge victorious in the 8 November presidential elections. Putin attributed the US action to an attempt on the part of Obama to muddy the waters in the US-Russian relationship before Trump assumed office on 20 January 2017. However, when Congress possessed the recent sanctions bill, Moscow did respond, ordering the expulsion of hundreds of US diplomats and seizing US diplomatic properties.

- Russian escalation unlikely, however. While Moscow holds many potential pressure cards that it could wield against the US, it knows that if it does wield them they could backfire. Russia could, for example, freeze collaboration with Washington in Syria, but this would do more damage to Russia’s interests there than to the US’. More generally, Russia’s current economic circumstances do not permit for further escalation against Washington.

- Ongoing conflict between the White House and Congress is likely. Despite the control that Trump’s party — the Republican Party — has over both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill is very rocky. Many Republicans oppose Trump’s policies and statements. Many Republican congressmen are distancing themselves from Trump for fear that his poor popularity ratings will diminish their electoral prospects in the next congressional elections. Congress’s rejection of the healthcare bill meant to introduce a replacement to “Obamacare” epitomises the relationship. So too does the congressional vote in favour of sanctions on Russia, as it reflects the Republicans’ rejection of Trump’s policy in favour of closer communications with Moscow. Many Republicans continue to see Russia as the US’ enemy while the majority of both houses condemn alleged Russian electoral tampering as an attack against US democratic values and its leadership of the free world.

- Trump’s ratification of the sanctions bill is significant. In spite of his legislative veto power, Trump did not use it to block the legislation. He may have feared being charged with working against US interests or of collusion with Russian electoral tampering. But more importantly, this was a strongly supported bipartisan bill and, if sent back to Congress, it would have won the necessary two-thirds majority needed to override the presidential veto. He therefore put his signature on it in order to avert that scenario.

- Heightened US-European tensions. European powers were angered and disturbed by the latest round of US sanctions. For one, the sanctions were imposed unilaterally whereas previously there had been a degree of coordination between the US and the EU since Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Europeans are particularly concerned by the impact the sanctions could have on Russian natural gas supplies to Europe. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel made it clear that the EU would not accept any use of the sanctions against European companies operating outside the US, especially those engaged in energy projects with Russian firms. If European countries do not cooperate in the implementation of the sanctions, the US anti-Russian sanctions law will lose much of its intended impact.

In the final analysis, the passage of the sanctions bill underscores the extent to which US-Russian relations have fallen hostage to the domestic conflict between Trump and his Republican Party and, hence, Congress. In the context of this battle, Trump has backed down on his hope to improve US-Russian relations so that he can stabilise his term in office and stem the criticisms directed at him from within his own party over his plans to promote closer relations with America’s historic enemy since World War II.

The writer is an expert in US affairs and associate editor of Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya.

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