President Trump has decided not to veto the Russia sanctions legislation passed by Congress. The decision was probably an easy one inasmuch as (1) a veto would easily have been overridden, resulting in embarrassment for the president and (2) it would have added fuel to Trump-Russia connection stories.
Naturally, Russia is angry about the sanctions. Europe is also unhappy, which is ironic because some European leaders have criticized Trump for being soft on Russia.
Let’s start with Russia. The Kremlin has announced that, in response to the sanctions, it will expel U.S. diplomats. The U.S. will have to reduce its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia to 455 people. In addition, U.S. personnel no longer will be able to use a posh dacha for parties and vacations.
These actions are, at best, symbolic. I doubt that we need 455 diplomats and technicians in Russia and the dacha, though I’m sure it’s nice, is surplus to requirements.
The Washington Post reports that, in addition to the response just discussed, Russia is likely to become less cooperative with the U.S. in matters such as Syria, North Korea, and combating terrorism. This concern seems overblown.
We can expect the Russians to continue to cooperate with us when it’s in their interest to do so. For example, it was in Russia’s interest to reach a deal whereby the U.S. abandoned Syria fighters opposed to Russian interests in exchange for a cease fire that was also in its interest, and which it could break the moment that ceased to be the case. This is the kind of deal Russia will agree to, sanctions or not. Similarly, Putin will not agree to deals that don’t advance Russian interests, sanctions or not.
The Post’s article does not discuss the most serious potential consequence of the U.S. sanctions — their implications for Europe. The sanctions allow the U.S. to impose heavy fines on European companies involved in energy infrastructure with Russia. They thus threaten several major projects now in progress.
As Noah Daponte-Smith at NRO says:
The Continent has long been dependent on Russian oil and gas, and potential stoppages in the westward flow of Russian oil have long caused headaches in European capitals — a 2009 dispute between Russia and Ukraine, for instance, caused serious crises in much of southeastern Europe, which relies heavily on Russian gas, and touched even central and western Europe.
Of particular concern is the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a project, controversial within Europe, that would traverse the Baltic Sea on the way from Russia to Germany. The project would be led by Gazprom, which is owned predominantly by the Russian government, and thus within the scope of the new sanctions.
EC Commission chief Klaus Juncker recently warned:
The U.S. bill could have unintended unilateral effects that impact the EU’s energy security interests. If our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days. ‘America First’ cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last.
What actions might Europe deem “appropriate”? Daponte-Smith cites the possibility of the same sort of trade-war retaliation that Trump has publicly considered since the beginning of his administration. Alternatively, Europe might invoke its law to prevent the enforcement of U.S. law extraterritorially. A general diplomatic rift between the EU and the U.S. is another possibility.
The benefit to Russia of these scenarios seems to outweigh the pain our sanctions undoubtedly would inflict on Russia. Thus, Daponte-Smith argues that we should craft the application of our sanctions around European interests as the Europeans perceive them.
The Trump administration should be able to accomplish this. However, efforts to do so will lead to charges from the president’s enemies that he is soft on, or even “colluding” with, Russia.
Republicans ought not join that chorus. The president needs some flexibility. His conduct regarding Russia has caused him to lose a considerable amount of the flexibility a president should normally enjoy in dealing with a foreign adversary. However, with America’s relations with Europe on the line, it’s important that Trump retain sufficient flexibility to accommodate European concerns regarding the sanctions Congress has passed.
Otherwise, Russia will be the winner.