U.S-Russia Daggers Drawn: Unsheathing the Sanctions Sword
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(30 July 2017) — This article could well be titled “Trump vs. Congress on Russian Sanctions,” (Part 2) as a sequel to what I wrote in The Ward Post almost eight months ago. By that time, I had already offered the probability in “Will Trump Fall on the Sanctions Sword?” that President Donald Trump would likely fall on the sanctions sword if he tried to do President Vladimir Putin’s bidding. The scenario I described would be driven primarily by Trump’s undisclosed business links to Russia and Putin’s expectations, and perhaps confidence that he could control Trump. I pointed out that Putin expected Trump to waive U.S. sanctions against Russia, and that Trump was inclined, or may be forced by Putin to do so. In my follow-up, I discussed Trump’s dilemma in dealing with a Congress that is united against Russia and determined to enforce sanctions against Russians in Putin’s inner circle, and against critical Russian financial and energy sectors.
Most political and sanctions observers, media pundits and others, expected Putin to retaliate against the sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama in December 2016 on Russia specifically for interfering in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections. Most were surprised when Putin did not retaliate. I was not surprised because I firmly believed Putin had a basis to be confident he could manipulate Trump and expected those sanctions would be waived as soon as Trump settled into the presidency.
I didn’t believe for an instance that Putin’s expectations were based on trust. I believed there was something in Putin’s arsenal that convinced him that Trump would act at Russia’s will in Russia’s favor. I wrote later in “Obama Sticks it to Trump’s Russian Partner” that President Obama had made it very difficult for Donald Trump to roll back those sanctions, and that President Obama had set a trap for him. President Obama nailed it down when he ordered release of the Intelligence Community’s findings on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
I want to be clear. Neither Putin nor his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov trusts Donald Trump or the United States. So that led me to believe Putin had some disturbing information on Trump, as well as the probability that Trump’s vulnerability was linked to undisclosed business relationships with Russian players. Hence, Trump’s failure to release his tax returns during or after the elections. I was well ahead of mainstream media and others when I wrote my referenced articles above. Now, the Russian sanctions showdown between the U.S. Congress and President Trump is the top story.
I had other reasons to believe there was no trust between Putin and Trump. I knew Foreign Minister Lavrov when he served as Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations at the time I represented Jamaica on the UN Security Council (2000-2001). Sitting with Lavrov in the same room week after week for two years, I witnessed firsthand the interaction and mistrust between Russia and the United States on some of the most critical issues facing the international community. I was obliged to intervene on a number of occasions between then Ambassador Lavrov and his U.S. counterparts in order to bring civility to some of the debates between them. I even managed on occasion to provide solutions acceptable to both sides. Putin was president of Russia at the time. Since elevated to Foreign Minister of Russia, I did not expect Lavrov’s and his boss’ mistrust of the United States to have changed. So it was logical for me to conclude that Putin’s confidence in getting his way with Trump had some other basis. Trump could be coerced.
We have not yet learnt whether there was collusion, or the depth of collusion between Putin’s government and the Trump presidential campaign. In order to have collusion there has to be at least two willing partners. However, it is plausible to conclude that there is something there to fuel Putin’s confidence in a friendly, accommodating President Trump. The latter’s friendly statements towards Putin, and Trump’s overtly friendly actions and open relationships with both Putin and Lavrov lend credence to this conclusion.
Putin and Trump miscalculated! Putin miscalculated that Trump could act out his often visible dictatorial characteristics and take whatever unimpeded action necessary to waive the sanctions. Trump miscalculated that a Republican Congress would be compliant to his wishes and put aside years of distrust and animosity against Russia. They were both far off the mark! Trump totally misunderstood the overwhelming anti-Russian sentiments in the U.S. Congress, among Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump also seems oblivious of the sacrosanct nature of the U.S. democratic process. With the Congress overwhelmingly approving sanctions against Russia and taking away the president’s authority to waive them, Trump is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Putin’s response to the new sanctions mandate is what was expected but never came in December. At that time it was President Obama exercising the sanctions authority granted by the Congress to punish Russia for its transgressions then applied to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. At a later date, President Trump could simply notify Congress and waive those sanctions. This time it’s quite different. The Congress, voting 419 to 3 in the House and 98-2 in the Senate gave Trump no wiggle room. This Bill took away Trump’s discretionary authority to waive the sanctions now made mandatory by the new Bill.
Decrying this Bill as impinging on his executive authority to conduct foreign policy, Trump contemplated a veto option. That would raise other questions and would be easily overridden by the Congress. It would also strengthen the speculation that Putin has something really damaging to Trump which would explain his reticence to condemn Putin’s interference in the U.S. elections. Putin now understands Trump’s dilemma on the sanctions issue, at least in the short to medium term. Even though Trump may seek to delay sanctions implementation by letting the Treasury Department slow down the process for issuing implementing regulations, he is caught in the trap Obama set for him. He must now deal with Putin’s tit-for-tat response or fall on the sanctions sword.
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
© Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post