As for the announcement of the Russian foreign Ministry on sanctions against American diplomats and diplomatic property, the surprise is the fact that they were not accepted before. A common practice during the cold war and after it was that the expulsion of diplomats from either side were accompanied by a symmetrical response. In fact, in December last year, the day after the Obama administration sent 35 Russian diplomats and closed two land plots in the order of punishment of Russia for its intervention in the elections of 2016, the Minister of foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov appeared on television and brandished a list of the 35 us diplomats that he was going to recommend Putin to expel from the country.
However, Putin surprised the world with the following statement: “reserving the right to retaliate, we will not stoop to the level of “cooking” irresponsible diplomacy.” Obviously, the Kremlin believed that after coming to power of President trump sanctions will be lifted, and relations will improve, and why in this case do not show generosity?
Seven months later and after bilateral presidential meeting in Hamburg, which seemed to be evidence of the normalization of relations, the Outlook remains as grim if not more grim than they were in December last year. The United States will now be forced to cut its diplomatic staff by 60% in order to comply with the terms of the Russian sanctions. The deterioration of relations between the two countries is on both sides for internal reasons.
An infinite number of investigations into the relations of members of the family of the American President and his close advisers with various Russian citizens — plus 2016 elections — has turned Russia into a toxic facility in Washington, DC. In Congress formed an unusual Alliance between Republicans and Democrats, and the Senate by 98 votes to 2, approved the bill enshrines in legislation and expanding existing sanctions that were originally imposed under the Obama administration by presidential decree after the annexation of Crimea, and it was done by senators in order to deprive trump of the ability to cancel the sanctions unilaterally.
Now Congress must approve any changes to the sanctions regime. This kind of law is a tool with limited accuracy. As the history of the amendment of Jackson-Vanik amendment (it remained in force for a period of 38 years), this law, if adopted, will likely operate longer than necessary, and, in addition, it deprives the President the flexibility and leverage that he could use in relations with Russia.
Internal factors also influenced the Russian response. Russian nationalism became a powerful force. Putin’s expected re-election in March next year, and although his popularity remains high, its appeal was largely based on his achievements in foreign policy, to demonstrate that Russia is a respected world power, and he is a strong leader. The initial euphoria that emerged in some Russian circles about the fact that when trump the Kremlin and the White house will establish a new, user-friendly and pragmatic attitude, already vanished. Perhaps Putin feels the need to show that Russia can not passively react to perceived it as an insult to the United States. The paradox, of course, is that Russia itself has created this situation by its actions in Ukraine, as well as during the election campaign in the United States.
Us sanctions bill, the purpose of which is to damage Russia, may have unintended consequences for the United States. In their current embodiment, the sanctions will not only continue to punish Russia, but will also punish American and European business due to restrictions on energy projects with Russian companies. In particular, this bill is aimed at preventing construction of the pipeline “Nord stream — 2”, according to which Russia could export its natural gas through the Baltic sea to Europe.
Germany supports the pipeline, believing it to be the most effective way to meet future demand, and so many believe — but certainly not all — of its partners from the European Union. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President, warned that the sanctions bill “may have unintended unilateral effect on the interests of the European Union in the field of energy security.” “If our concerns are not taken into account, we are ready to act accordingly and take a decision within a few days,” he added.
Moreover, German officials — followed by Russia — saying that the real agenda behind sanctions, associated with the desire to increase the export of American natural gas to Europe. Some European officials warn that the EU may reconsider its own sanctions regime — it has been carefully developed in conjunction with the Obama administration — in the case that the United States will act on this proposed bill. This, of course, would be good news for the Kremlin.
The recent actions of the Kremlin can indicate the beginning of a new series of sanctions and counter-sanctions from both sides. Russia and America will probably still have the opportunity to work together in Syria, but this may be one of the few remaining areas of cooperation. If so, then us-Russian relations continue to deteriorate until the moment when they start to improve — and given the current dysphoria in Washington to wait for it, you may have quite a long time.
Angela Stent directs the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European studies, Georgetown University (Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University). She is also the author of the book “the Limits of partnership: U.S.-Russian relations in the 21st century” (The Limits of Partnership: U. S-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century).