The sanctions game being played by the United States and Russia is unfolding in three dimensions. The first is moral, the second is economic, the third is domestic politics in both nations.
President Donald Trump, whose election the Russians helped to engineer, is now confronted with the political necessity of signing a new sanctions bill that passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming majorities. Trump may yearn to move forward on relations with Russia, but Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that the moral codes of international law should still apply. They’re right.
The sanctions are more than justified. Russia seized and annexed Crimea, part of the sovereign nation of Ukraine, in 2014. It provided the missile its rebel surrogates used to shoot down a Malaysian airliner overflying Ukraine, and it continues to interfere in Ukraine’s affairs. The U.S. and the European Union imposed economic sanctions, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has not apologized for what Russia did in Ukraine, much less reversed course.
Congress has now said the U.S. cannot tacitly excuse Russia’s behavior by easing sanctions.
In December, President Barack Obama imposed further sanctions after the U.S. intelligence community unanimously agreed that Russian hackers, at Putin’s direction, had interfered with last year’s presidential election. Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized two Russian-owned compounds on the East Coast.
Putin has denied any election meddling. He didn’t retaliate in December because he’d been led to believe by people close to Trump that the incoming president would ease the sanctions.
But questions of Russian interference, and possible collusion by people close to Trump, have boxed him in.
Putin is now striking back, ordering the U.S. mission in Russia downsized by 755 people. Most of them will be Russian nationals working at U.S. facilities.
The U.S. sanctions have hurt some Putin cronies and helped others. Their overall effect on the Russian economy has been dampened by market reforms and stabilizing oil prices. This boils down to who blinks first: a Russian autocrat, or an envious U.S. president who is still restrained by the rule of law.