by Maia Otarashvili*
US-Russia relations further unravel every time it starts to look like things couldn’t get any worse. In July, the transatlantic community united once again as American and European politicians collectively supported the renewal of a wide array of sanctions on Russia. The most notable event of the summer in that regard was the passing of a controversial sanctions bill in Washington, one that Donald Trump ended up signing, albeit under protest. The bill turns the existing Russia sanctions into law. As a result of this new law, President Trump will be unable to ease the sanctions without congressional approval through a review process. It had been presumed all along that Mr. Trump was planning or at least willing to use the sanctions as a bargaining chip with Russia in order to achieve some type of a reset in relations between the two countries. That option is no longer in his foreign policy tool kit, or at the very least, not readily available to him. The bill also imposes additional sanctions on Russia, as well as Iran and North Korea. It didn’t take long for Vladimir Putin to retaliate. He has decided to resort to “counter-sanctions,” and has ordered the US embassy in Moscow to slash its cadres by more than 50%. Yet, there is fear that these actions could be just the beginning of another sad chapter in US-Russia relations, one that could be even more reminiscent of the Cold War era.
SANCTIONS AND COUNTER-SANCTIONS
Once the EU and the U.S. posed the first set of Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia in 2014, Vladimir Putin decided to retaliate with certain counter-measures against the West. Much like the Western sanctions on Russia, Putin’s sanctions have been expansive, and have affected many, particularly European, businesses. The counter-measures have come in the form of restrictions on the West’s access to Russia, and have also undone many of the positive gains Western governmental and non-governmental organizations had made through years of civil society development, civic education, and other aid projects.
One of these stories unfolded in August 2015 when a bizarre act of burning Hungarian geese in Russia was widely publicized. Earlier that year, Moscow had declared a war against so-called “contraband foods.” Russian authorities placed a ban on many foods from the EU and the U.S., so any of it that had been smuggled in (reportedly after being re-labeled and shipped from Belarus and Kazakhstan) was to be destroyed. Thousands of tons of such “contraband foods” were marked for destruction, and the scenes of burning and bulldozing the food were televised for all Russians to see. One such video was shared by NPR. In the video, taken in Russia’s Tatarstan region, a policewoman reads out charges against three frozen geese in a small grocery store. The geese are then taken to a landfill and run over by a bulldozer. The story of the Hungarian geese turned into an internet-meme frenzy. The burning geese became a symbol of the Russian government’s misguided acts of destroying tons of food while ignoring Russia’s not-so-distant past of famine and food shortages.
Unfortunately, the Kremlin’s counter-sanctions did not end with the geese. In May 2015, Putin signed a new law, which allows the government to designate any foreign and international organization as “undesirable,” effectively banning it from functioning in Russia. Immediately after the passing of this law, Russia’s prosecutor general banned a long list of international non-governmental organizations. The list of “harmful” organizations included the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Media Development Fund (MDIF), as well as the American Councils for International Education. These organizations, now labeled as “undesirables,” had spent decades building civil society development and educational exchange programs in Russia. Their presence had in many ways linked Russian society with the outside world. The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe called on the Russian government to amend the law in order to bring it in line with international standards, but it has yet to make any amendments to the law. Instead, Russian society found itself more isolated from the West.
Now, in response to this summer’s additional sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin has issued a set of counter-sanctions, which will significantly hurt whatever remains of US-Russia diplomatic relations. Currently, the US embassy in Russia has approximately 1200 diplomatic employees. Only about half of those individuals are US citizens, while the other half consists of Russian citizens. That number, per President Putin’s order, needs to be reduced to match the number of employees at the Russian embassy in the U.S. This means that the embassy will have to fire approximately 755 individuals, which would leave about 455 diplomatic employees at the US embassy in Moscow. The order is unclear about whether or not the cadre reduction is supposed to apply to American nationals only. The U.S. has until September 1, 2017 to implement these changes. Experts say the embassy should still be able to continue to function, however, some anticipate that the processing of visas, interviews, paperwork, and other operational matters might take much longer. Specifically, a significant slowdown in visa-processing may become a major issue of tension, as it is a service in high demand.
PUTIN OPENS UP ABOUT THE U.S.
These counter-sanctions may not have a serious practical impact on the U.S, but it is an important message. Some are interpreting this move as just the beginning of more Russia counter-sanctions against the United States. Vladimir Putin says he would prefer not to take any further retaliatory measures. Despite the above outlined restrictions Russia previously imposed on the West, in a recent interview with Russian television channel Vesti, Putin said that he “waited for quite some time for something to change for the better. . . . But, judging by everything, if it changes, it will not be soon. . . . But we must, I figured, show that we will not leave things without an answer anymore.”
Putin also added that Russia now needs to figure out if they should do more to retaliate, but insisted that he’d prefer to cooperate with the U.S. rather than impose sanctions. While Putin used this opportunity to publicize his decision to slash the US embassy in Moscow in half, he also elaborated on how he believes the U.S. and Russia can still partner up on “fighting crime around the world:”
“But there are very important areas of our interaction. This includes the issue of reduction of the number of weapons of mass destruction – here we certainly play the leading role in the world along with the United States. There is also the fight against terrorism. And, judging by what has been accomplished recently, we will see how the situation will develop further. But the recent the creation of the southern zone of de-escalation in Syria is a concrete step, a concrete result of joint work.”
Putin went on to outline further issues of possible “multifaceted cooperation in very many directions,” citing counterterrorism as one of those major issues. According to the Russian president, not only is antiterrorism in the interests of Syria and Russia, but also in the interests of Jordan, Israel, and therefore the United States. “We work and achieve results even now, even in this rather complicated situation,” added Mr. Putin, who also appears convinced that the U.S. and Russia can be equal partners in fighting crime around the world, particularly on cybersecurity issues.:
“We have repeatedly suggested to the American side to cooperate with us on cyber-security issues for the benefit of both countries, and in general, to combat cyber-crime throughout the world. But instead of beginning to work constructively, we only hear groundless accusations of [Russian] interference in the internal affairs of the United States.”
Finally, President Putin explained the importance of US-Russia collaboration on energy issues, aviation, and deep space exploration. According to him, limiting those projects and existing facets of collaboration would be harmful to the U.S., but he believes that is not necessary as it will not only harm the US-Russia relations, but the international order as well.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
The Vesti interview raises an important question; is Putin’s recount of major US-Russia common interests an attempt at explaining the importance of salvaging the relationship? Or are these veiled threats? According to Putin, the sanctions on Russia have not yet wreaked such havoc on the country as to require serious counter-measures. While he hopes things won’t worsen, and opposes further counter-sanctions, he says he will have to consider further retaliatory measures should US pressure on Russia begin to do more damage.
Putin’s calm and optimistic demeanor during the interview appeared to be out of context when considering the situation from many alarmed Russian and American experts’ viewpoints, who seem to believe that things will indeed worsen in the fall. Some are even predicting an “economic war” or a second Cold War. That camp, however, is facing serious opposition from some Washington insiders who believe that Putin is only briefly lashing out, with no intention of taking further action.
The Kremlin has already proven that it doesn’t need to use formal sanctions in order to destabilize its enemies, with the most obvious example being the Russian cyber-intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and its covert funding of far-right nationalist parties in Europe. Therefore, the Western leaders must remain alert – further retaliation may come, but not in the form of traditional, overt measures. Putin is not likely to use tactics similar to those a Western democracy, committed to a certain level of transparency and international norms, would deploy. His foreign policy toolkit is a lot more diverse thanks to his tried and true hybrid warfare tactics. The West may not know it is being “sanctioned” by Russia, until it is too late.
*Maia Otarashvili is Research Fellow and Program Manager of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. She holds an MA in Globalization, Development, and Transitions from the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her current research is focused on the post-communist countries of the Eurasia region, including the Black Sea and Caucasus states.