The US administration backs the new sanctions on Russia. «The administration is fully supportive of those sanctions», said White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short at a press briefing on July 10.
The statement comes in the wake of US and Russian presidents’ meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Following the event, President Trump said he wanted to move forward «working constructively with Russia». Does he mean that introducing tougher sanctions is a way to promote «constructive» relationship?
«Could the White House be working against it? They well could be. Have they contacted us to work against it? No», said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). The only worry on the part of the administration is that the bill does not include «certain national waivers that have always been consistently part of sanctions bills in the past». For the administration, a softer bill with a provision for sanctions waivers would be just the thing it wants. It finds the strengthened sanctions and other things to spoil the relations with Russia acceptable.
The legislation had sailed through the Senate to get stalled in the House. It is expected to be voted on till the Congressional recess in August. When in force, it would require a congressional review if President Donald Trump attempted to ease or end punitive actions on Russia. A foreign policy issue is supposed to be delegated to Congress to set an unusual precedent of constrained presidential authority. So, it’s the procedures, not the substance, that evokes the administration’s concern.
In late December, 2016, the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats and shut down the embassy compounds in Maryland and New York. Back then, Moscow abstained from taking a reciprocal action. President Putin even invited US diplomats and their families to a party in the Kremlin.
More than half a year has passed. The White House has not yet resolved the issue of the compounds. It keeps on hanging in the mid-air to become a serious irritant to affect the bilateral relations. This prompts Russia to consider retaliatory steps. On July 11, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he was «considering specific measures» in response, but did not elaborate. According to him, it is «simply shameful for such a great country as the United States, a champion of international law, to leave the situation in such a state of suspended animation».
Moscow may well expel a number of American diplomats and seize some US diplomatic buildings to complicate the relationship President Trump says he wants to improve. Obviously, Russia’s patience has run out. After all, the seizure of the embassy property is an egregious violation of the Vienna Convention, it cannot go unanswered forever.
There is another irritant looming. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) filed legislation - the «Russia Arms Trade Limitation Act» - on July 7 to impose fresh sanctions on Russia for violations of the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The lawmaker submitted the proposal as an amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a must-pass annual bill that sets policy for the Defense Department.
The NDAA defense already has a provision saying that if Russia continued to violate the treaty within 15 months of the legislation’s enactment, the United States «would no longer be legally bound by the treaty as a matter of domestic law».
Actually, the bill envisages a unilateral withdrawal without a serious attempt to solve the differences and address Russia’s concerns. The US would make a move to almost certainly launch an arms race without even consulting the European NATO allies. After all, this is a European problem; the intermediate range missiles cannot strike the United States from the Old Continent.
Russia has denied violating the treaty while no explanations have been produced to explain Russia’s accusation that the US Mk-41 launcher installed in Europe as a part of ballistic missile defense is capable of firing long range cruise missiles in a clear breach of the agreement’s terms. Anyway, this is a separate issue to be discussed by experts; it should not negatively affect the whole range of issues on the Russia-US agenda. Disagreeing on the INF Treaty does not prevent the powers from cooperating on Syria and other problems.
The domestic political strife has dealt a heavy blow to the Russia-US relations. The lawmakers have no time for crucial tax and health reforms but they do find time for anti-Russia bills. Congress and media have taken on a hostile attitude towards Russia while the current administration has not taken any real step to improve the ties so far. On the contrary, the Treasury Department even tightened the sanctions on June 20.
Hopes are high for the upcoming meeting between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon. But if the abovementioned bills become laws and the problems continue to pile up, there will hardly be a light to see at the end of the tunnel. This is the wrong environment for achieving progress during the talks on arms control, the fight against terrorism or crisis management to end the ongoing war in Syria.
One thing leads to another. It’s impossible to build mutually beneficial, business-like and pragmatic relations under the conditions of hostile attitude on the part of Congress and inability or unwillingness of the administration to do anything about it.