Donald Trump’s ascendance to power in Washington renewed hopes of US-Russia détente. Such expectations were inevitable owing to his views about Vladimir Putin and faith in US-Russia cooperation as expressed during the election campaign. However, the probability of thaw in relations seems less likely in the backdrop of renewed US sanctions on Russia and subsequent Russian call for the expulsion of US diplomatic staff from its territory.
The latest sanctions did not only trigger row between US and Russia; it also caused break up in European Union’s and US’s coordinated efforts to punish Russia over Crimea. Therefore, it important is to revisit the underlying points of divergence behind this diplomatic impasse; Also to see what the latest sanctions regime mean for Europe- the historical battleground for US-Russia power struggle.
US Sanctions Regime
President Donald Trump signed a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea on 2 August 2017[1]. The bill restricts President’s power to abort or ease sanctions on Russia without prior approval from Congress which makes it unprecedented. Also, the bill codifies previous executive orders signed by Barack Obama in this regard. It must be noted that Trump administration did not sign the bill with much enthusiasm. In a signing statement, Trump called the bill ‘seriously flawed’ and that it ‘will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together’[2].
Latest sanctions take inspiration from the ones imposed by EU and US in the wake of Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. The previous sanctions mainly composed of travel bans and asset freezing of Russia’s powerful elite, state banks, arms manufacturers, and oil companies. New sanctions have been introduced on entities doing business with Russian military or intelligence agencies, participating in its off-shore oil projects, and involved in oil or gas pipeline construction within Russia. The bill also targets any entity involved in any cyber-attack against the U.S. on behalf of the Russian government. It must be noted that the latest sanctions are the sole initiative of U.S with Europe being no part of it.
Russia’s reaction
As a reaction to freshly imposed sanctions, Vladimir Putin announced that it would ask US to cut diplomatic staff by sixty percent at US missions all over Russia. He also suggested prohibiting access to two key diplomatic properties owned by the US in Russia. This measure takes inspiration from the call made by Russian Foreign Ministry to the US after Congress vote which stated: “We kindly ask the U.S. to adjust the headcount of its diplomatic and technical staff by September to exact parity with the number of Russian diplomats and employees in the U.S”[3].
It must be noted that the required diplomatic cuts are delayed response to Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US back in 2016. The calls for its implementation were intensified after the adoption of the new bill in Congress at the end of July 2017.
At the heart of latest sanctions regime against Russia are two reasons: Crimean annexation and meddling in US elections.
  1. Annexation of Crimea, 2014
Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a turning point in the history of post-Cold War security order in Europe. For the US and its NATO allies, Ukrainian crisis has become a constant bane and cause of discomfort. They demand Russia to annul annexation of Crimea and stop its support to the separatists fighting in Ukraine. The fear that same fate might happen to other Baltic states drives such demands. In order to ensure compliance, both imposed severe sanctions on Russia which continue till date.
On the other hand, Russia views Ukrainian control paramount to deter further expansion of NATO influence into its western border areas. Another narrative suggests that Russia annexed Crimea as a warning to Ukraine to not join NATO. A consequence of Ukrainian conflict has been beefed up security arrangements in the form of land and naval military exercises, deployment of Ballistic Missile defense systems, and nuclear and conventional force deployments along eastern European border by NATO and Russia.
  1. Interference in US elections, 2016
US intelligence community is highly confident that Russia employed cyber-attacks and dissemination of false information on social media to manipulate the results of US Presidential elections held in 2016. They hold that Russian Government aspired to augment Trump’s election chances through discrediting Hillary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably. It is claimed that personal servers of Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign manager were hacked to provide such information to WikiLeaks. Citing it as a major breach of their territorial and political sovereignty, the latest sanctions aim to punish Russia for influencing and meddling in US elections. However, Russia, time and again has vehemently denied such charges.
European Union’s Stance
With a third of EU’s natural gas coming from Russia, EU leaders warn that the bill endangers the region’s energy security. European Commission President, Jean Claude Junker, while talking about the bill said ‘‘America first cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last”[4]. German Economics Minister, Brigitte Zyrpries, declared the bill “against international law”[5]. EU has also distanced itself from the recent spat as European Commission spokesperson declined to comment, insisting that it is a “bilateral issue”[6].
The reason behind such criticism is that the bill targets any company that contributes to the development, maintenance or modernization of Russia’s energy export pipelines. Case in point particularly is pipeline Nord Stream 2, which aims to carry gas from Russia into Germany through Baltics. The bill also undermines the future of the partnership between EU and Russian companies engaged in developing offshore energy projects in Egypt. Southern Gas Corridor, the joint collaboration of Russian and Italian firms, also becomes ambiguous under US sanctions.
Sanctions imposed in 2014 exempted Russian energy firms due to EU member states’ reliance on Russian energy supplies. Now US sanctions target oil and gas companies while European sanctions target oil companies only. Many analysts accuse the US of using the bill as means to coerce Europe to switch to its shale gas reserves instead of Russia to meet their energy needs.
Key Findings
  • The recurring diplomatic impasses indicate that cold war mentality still prevails in the bilateral relationship of US and Russia. The ongoing power struggle and remilitarization of Baltics is an indication of the deep-rooted security dilemma.
  • The codification of sanctions diminishes any hope of cooperation on key international security issues like terrorism, Middle East turmoil, and Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • The adoption of punitive measures against Russia indicates that the US is not in the mood to engage with Russia to iron out divergences for a better bilateral relationship.
  • Through setting a later deadline for the expulsion of diplomatic staff, Russia seems interested in carving out some understanding with the US on diverging issues.
  • The public criticism of US by EU leaders on this issue exposes the cracks in the traditional US-EU alliance. This also puts into question the future and sustainability of NATO.
[1] Borger, Julian. “Russia sanctions: Trump signs bill imposing new measures.” The Guardian, August 2, 2017.
[2] Serhan, Yasmeen. “Why Europe Opposes America’s New Russia Sanctions.” The Atlantic, August 2, 2017.
[3] “Russia Orders U.S. Embassy Staff Cuts in Sanctions Retaliation.” The Moscow Times, July 28, 2017.
[4] Hugler, Justin. “America First, Europe last? EU accuses the US of using Russia sanctions to further its economic interests.” July 26, 2017.
[5] “Germany urges EU countermeasures against U.S. over Russia sanctions.” July 31, 2017.
[6] “Leave Us Out of It: EU Commission Refuses to Get Involved in US-Russia Spat.” August 8, 2017.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.