Trump’s New Sanctions Policy: Russia First

By Aleksandra Zaytseva

On Monday, January 29th, two big announcements came out of Washington. First, the U.S. Treasury Department released a “name and shame” list of 210 Russian officials and business people, as had been mandated by a law passed earlier this year. Second, an official from the White House promptly announced that the administration would be throwing out this list, and that they would not be announcing any new sanctions. Instead, according to the White House, the threat of sanctions was already acting as a sufficient deterrent to potential customers of Russian trade. The announcements quickly provoked a mix of outrage and mockery from both Washington and Moscow, while the public was left perplexed as to the significance of these developments in light of the ongoing Russian investigations.

The law in question, Combating America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) was approved by almost unanimous votes in the House and Senate, and signed by President Donald Trump on August 2nd. The measure had the dual intent of retaliating for Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 elections, and of making sure that the President could not revoke or lessen sanctions on his own.  Furthermore, the new legislation required the President to produce a list of businessmen and oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to begin imposing sanctions against buyers of Russian military equipment by Monday. Reluctant but optionless in the face of a veto-proof majority, President Trump signed the bill in an uncharacteristically quiet manner, refusing cameras and interviews. His only response came as a two-page statement released the following day, claiming that this measure was “flawed” and “included clearly unconstitutional provisions” by limiting his executive power.  

Although the requisite list was produced on time, it was not the list that had been prepared by the experts. According to Anders Aslund’s write up for the Atlantic Council, the original, diligently assembled list was thrown out at the last minute by an unnamed senior official, and replaced with a list of 114 politicians and 96 business “oligarchs” copied directly from the Forbes 2017 Richest Russians list. Consequently, the official list bears no significance, and gives no indication as to individual’s actual level of involvement in, or importance to, the Russian regime. The list is so long and haphazard that some have speculated whether the administration is actually mocking the U.S. Congress, in protest of the sanctions law. While the law did not impose any action against the listed figures, the careless nature of its assembly added serious insult to the injury of Trump’s backtracking on imposing new sanctions.  Members of Congress spoke publicly that this move is a failure to protect the national security and free elections.  

Their outrage is not unjustified, seeing as this move has very little impact or importance to Russia. Sanctions do appear to hurt the regime by quellling key sources of revenue to its oligarchs, but it is a stretch to argue that they have immediate impact on government stability. Though the Magnitsky Act appears to be a thorn in Putin’s side, the regime is still strongly centralized and consolidated. Despite the last few years of targeted sanctions, the elections in March are universally acknowledged to be a circus. Even with a growing grassroots movement, the most popular opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, runs an essentially personalistic campaign, rather than on a cohesive party platform. Systemic corruption will keep the oligarchs’ London properties secure for some years to come, while wages will continue to fall and cost of living increases. Yet, while it is unproven that sanctions realistically influence Russia’s aggressive activities, it is nevertheless important that the U.S. holds the position that international aggression goes not without consequence.  

In response to the “Kremlin list,” Moscow, put on a comically ostentatious show of outrage over this new attack from the West. Yet, while Putin blustered about “complicating Russian-American relations” and “being prepared to take quite serious retaliatory steps,” the real impact of this list is non-existent.  Whether the performance was entirely for the benefit of the conservative American public or for President Trump himself is unclear, but it was undeniably a show put on so that the audience could feel something had been accomplished. In fact, Aslund argues that the only effect this might have is solidifying the Russian elite behind Putin.

In contrast to the negligible effect on Russia’s political landscape, this fiasco exposes a great deal about the state of American democracy. Whether or not mockery or revenge was truly the intent of the list, the move is another in a long line of problematic developments in U.S democracy coming out of the executive office, particularly in regards to Russia. The fact that nearly all lawmakers saw it necessary to pass legislation preventing the President from rescinding sanctions against an aggressive regime was the first cause for concern. The continuing domestic attacks on the independence of journalism, the courts, and law enforcement have been red flags two, three, and four. This recent disregard for legal mandates and rule of law merely reiterates the clearly dismissive attitude of the White House towards democratic integrity and national security.

It is clear that Trump harbors deep admiration for both Putin and his brand of strongman politics. While he will use apocalyptic bombast over provocations from North Korea, he reacts in an uncharacteristically docile manner when mocked openly by Russia. The President bristles at any curbing of executive power and regularly echoes Moscow’s nationalistic and isolationist rhetoric. Furthermore, he has proven that he will override overwhelmingly popular U.S. legislation in a way that only serves to benefit the Russian regime. While Mike Pompeo recently concluded that there is every expectation of more interference by the Russians in the upcoming midterm elections, the more glaring threat appears to be what fresh democratic sabotage is on our horizon domestically.

Aleksandra Zaytseva is a Grants Officer for Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy and an M.A. candidate in the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University. She is particularly interested in the issues of anti-corruption and grassroots reform in the post-Soviet cultures.