The Trump administration’s new sanctions against Russia, imposed last week in response to the poisoning in the U.K. of a former Russian spy and his daughter, are welcome. They are also confusing, contrasting as they do the words and behavior of President Donald Trump himself, who has repeatedly and publicly lavished praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
One hopes the real U.S. strategy is to stand strong against Russia’s transgressions. But unless the president speaks up forcefully, no amount of punishment will deter Putin from his agenda.
The Trump administration has found many ways to stand up to Russia. It has built on Crimea-related sanctions begun by the Barack Obama administration, approved the sale of so-called lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, struck Syrian military sites after Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons and expelled scores of Russian diplomats from the U.S. (also in response to the spy poisoning). The Justice Department recently indicted 13 Russians for cyberhacking. The administration also rightly opposes the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would carry gas directly from Russia to Germany.
Equally important, many of the U.S. penalties imposed on Russia have been smartly targeted at members of Putin’s inner circle, leading financial institutions and major industries; the International Monetary Fund says that Western sanctions in their entirety could shrink the Russian economy by 10 percent.
On the other hand, there has been some backsliding, which reflects the president’s own apparent reservations. The administration has on several occasions dragged its feet on implementing sanctions passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress, which Trump called “flawed legislation.”
Most seriously, on the issue of Russian election meddling, Trump has publicly sided with Putin against U.S. intelligence agencies. He has also denied that Russia is an American foe, and has called the news media “the real enemy of the people.” He has lauded Russia’s “cooperation” in Syria, which has consisted of propping up a murderous dictator, attacking U.S.-backed rebels and allowing Iran to set up a proxy force on Israel’s border. He has consistently snubbed the U.S.’s most important European allies. And, most ominous, he still refuses to disclose what he and Putin discussed behind closed doors last month in Helsinki.
Little wonder that when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared recently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, its chairman, Bob Corker of Tennessee, asked bluntly: “Why does he say these things?” It’s a very good question, because Trump’s rhetorical contradicting of U.S. policy has real consequences.
It undermines sanctions, for instance. While these measures have some direct effects, as in Iran, they work mainly by marking a state as a global pariah. So they have a strong effect only if they are accompanied by clear moral condemnation and an international effort to pressure the offending country to change its ways.
The Skripal sanctions in particular will inevitably need shoring up. Unless Russia proves it has abandoned its chemical and biological weapons programs within the next few months, the administration will need to follow through with additional punishments. Trump’s job is to back up the sanctions with a clear message to Putin that the U.S. stands with Europe in its intolerance for murder attempts on foreign soil and Russia’s broader aggressions. His administration cannot make that clear without his public support.