What Retaliation Against US Sanctions?

Congress is determined to impose heavier and tighter economic sanctions upon Russia. It looks like President Trump may have little alternative but agreeing to them given the strength of anti-Russian sentiment in both houses. These adverse conditions are really the long term consequence of the failed re-set of relations with Moscow by the Obama administration and the humiliation of Obama’s supine reaction to Russia’s seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine.

No military action was even contemplated when the ‘little green men’ began appearing in Ukraine, even though President Putin claimed they were not actually Russian military personnel: a cautious stance taken just in case western special forces parachuted in and seized his men. But there was no danger of that happening under Obama, who was simply uninterested.

The economic sanctions subsequently taken so obviously with little enthusiasm by Washington have had little adverse effect on Russia and the EU embargo has, on the contrary, precipitated a spectacular revival in Russian agriculture. Anti-Russian sentiment is thus not just a consequence of what was seen as Russia’s interference in the electoral process in the United States. It is a symptom of steadily rising feelings of impotence.

Yet the United States is in a position to wreak serious damage on the Russian economy and with oil prices as low as they are, and American resources being what they now are, how could Russia effectively respond? Putin’s team fully understands that  Trump’s hands are tied if those on the Hill are united in their determination to freeze out Russia. From the impressively detailed analysis in today’s Russian press, Moscow is powerless unless it wants to hurt itself still further (Yuri Barsukov et al., “Nad Amerikoi navisli kontrsanktsii”, Komsomolskaya Pravda 27 July 2017).

The authors of the Russian report do an impressive job listing the further damage the Americans can inflict on the Russian economy. But, aside from taking retaliatory measures against US diplomats in the Russian capital – seizing the American embassy’s country datcha and expelling as many US diplomats as were Russians expelled under Obama’s orders – mostly all that can be done in retaliation economically is to batten down the hatches until the raging storm subsides.

As for political action, arguably the Russians failed to assure the Americans that cyber attacks will not recur, while merely hinting that the breaches were not ‘official’; they have done nothing to help the United States pressure North Korea to desist from deploying intercontinental nuclear missiles; they took military action in Syria to save Assad rather than defeat the real enemy, ISIS; they are aligning with Washington’s enemy, and friend of North Korea, Iran across the Near East; and they are trying to find ways of propping up Maduro’s rotting structure of power in Venezuela by complicated oil swaps and political support for Chavistas elsewhere in Latin America.

To put it mildly, their entire foreign policy has done everything, it would seem, to inflame relations with Washington already. What more, exactly, can they offer? The Kremlin certainly cannot count on serious EU resistance to US demands; the economic consequences would add to current serious anxieties in Germany about existing US protectionist sentiment. And if Trump is trapped by Congress, the Kremlin would be well advised to take a serious step back before seeking to advance further.