Obama, Trump, and Putin: The Sanctions Game

By Richard Weitz

As expected, the Obama administration on last Thursday (December 29, 2016) announced a series of measures to punish the Russian government for its cyber intelligence activities against the United States, including the alleged public releasing of purloined emails from Democratic leaders to try to influence the outcome of the November elections and to discredit the U.S. political system.

According to the White House statement [https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/12/29/statement-president-actions-response-russian-malicious-cyber-], the measures also were a response to Russian government harassment of U.S. diplomats in Russia:

  • declaring 35 Russian intelligence operatives operating under diplomatic cover “persona non grata”
  • sanctioning individual officers and companies associated with the GRU and FSB Russian intelligence services
  • designating two Russian individuals for using cyber-enabled means to misappropriate funds and misuse personal information
  • Closing two Russian diplomatic compounds in the United States that Russian personnel employed for intelligence-related purpose
  • Releasing declassified technical information on the cyber activities of Russian intelligence services

Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, told the media [http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/u-s-retaliation-meant-expose-dissuade-increasing-russian-aggression/] that the goal of the measures “was to make clear both to Russia and to any other actors that there will be consequences for violating norms of international behavior, both with respect to mistreatment of our diplomatic personnel and with respect to malicious cyber-activity.” She said they also aim to decrease Western vulnerabilities by making Russian goals and tactics more transparent to the defenders.

Perhaps deliberately, the sanctions generated a series of dilemmas for the parties.

For the members of the U.S. intelligence community, they face the challenge that, the more evidence they reveal about the attacks, the more persuasive their claims become, but the greater risk of exposing their sources and methods (which probably include cyber and even human espionage sources) to Russia and other targets. Their actions also alienate the community from the Trump team, which has dismissed the allegations of Russian hacking on Trump’s behalf.

The latest sanctions presented a dilemma for Putin, but he adroitly overcame them. His personal inclination was to be tough in general, especially against Obama. Putin likely also faced pressures for a strong retaliatory response from his national security agencies, who were the main target of the latest U.S. measures.

But retaliating massively would have made it even more difficult for the incoming Trump administration, which aims to improve relations with Moscow by supporting Russian policies in Syria and elsewhere.

Putin’s response was clever. He again achieved tactical surprise by having the foreign minister, the Kremlin spokesperson, and other national security officials publicly raise expectations [https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/kremlin-spokesman-vows-retaliation-against-us-sanctions/2016/12/29/e0126be2-ce08-11e6-b8a2-8c2a61b0436f_story.html?utm_term=.e81896f3e475] for a stern “tit-for-tat” response, with some sources implying asymmetric escalation.

Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chairman of the Russian Duma foreign policy committee, said [http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2016/12/29/kremlin-vows-retaliation-for-sanctions.html?via=desktop&source=copyurl] that, “of course, reciprocal steps will be made and the U.S. embassy in Moscow and, quite possibly, the consulates will be cut down to size as well.”

Then Putin announced [http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/53678] that the Russian government would not respond at all: “Although we have the right to retaliate, we will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration.” He even touchingly wished Obama a happy new year invited the children of U.S. diplomats to the holiday parties at the Kremlin.

Other Russian officials depicted the measures as reflecting the frustrations of the departing Obama White House, which had mismanaged its most important bilateral relationship. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova dismissed [https://twitter.com/News_Executive/status/814589883645837312] the White House response as sour grapes, dismissing the Obama team as “a group of foreign policy losers, angry and ignorant.”

Russian and U.S. commentators depicted the measures as an effort to tie the hands of the incoming Trump team. This interpretation is credible.

The Obama administration has taken a series of actions in its last weeks, from excluding [http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/12/20/506336885/obama-designates-atlantic-arctic-areas-off-limits-to-offshore-drilling] much of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from off-shore drilling, to dismantling [http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/trailguide/la-na-trailguide-updates-trump-registry-1482428667-htmlstory.html] the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System that that tracked visitors from several dozen mostly Muslim countries with active terrorist groups, to taking [https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/12/266119.htm] a stern line against Israeli settlements even as Trump has designated an ambassador to that country who rejects the two-state solution to the Palestine issue.

One Russian expert cited in the media [http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/12/30/putins-masterstroke-of-nonretaliation-obama-sanctions-expulsions-trump/] described Putin’s response as to make Trump “an unwitting Russian agent — everything he does now will be considered payback for this and earlier election services.” But publicizing this interpretation unwittingly deepens Trump’s dilemmas.

Trump praised Putin’s low-key response on Twitter

[https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/814919370711461890] calling his decision “a great move… I always knew he was very smart!.”

Yet, Trump faces his own dilemmas from the latest sanctions. He wants to renew Russian-U.S. ties to invigorate cooperation with Moscow against terrorism and other issues. Trump also naturally recoils at the narrative that he won the elections thanks only to Kremlin gamesmanship.

But if he challenged, let alone repeals, the sanctions, Trump plays into his opponents’ characterization of him as a Russian puppet and alienates an intelligence community that he wants to strengthen to fight terrorism better without sending massive U.S. ground forces.

These anti-hacking measures are legally easier for Trump to repeal than the sanctions adopted by Congress in legislation, such as those regarding Crimea and human rights, but harder to repeal politically, given the strong bipartisan support for them in Congress and that the Russian cyber intervention was targeted directly against the United States rather than (or in addition to) a third country like Ukraine.

Trump’s most serious opposition may come from the Republicans in Congress, who have criticized Obama’s response as too delayed and too weak.

They have already scheduled hearings next week on Russia’s cyber hacking and some have expressed reservations about confirming some of Trump’s Cabinet choices due to their ties with Russia.

Yet, Trump has continued to defend Putin throughout the elections even though it would have been politically beneficial to distance himself from Russia.

He may also be counting on the reluctance of the Republicans in Congress to challenge a president from their own party, who may have indirectly helped many of them get elected, during what is commonly an initial honeymoon period for new presidents.

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