New US sanctions on Russia inflame old tensions

Russia’s frustration with the Trump administration boiled over Wednesday, with Moscow abruptly canceling talks designed to improve ties with the US and threatening retaliation for sanctions the White House renewed Tuesday.

Moscow’s decision to cancel the talks is driven by a range of factors, from domestic political considerations to a desire to signal displeasure about what Russians are calling the “absurdity” of sanctions driven by the “inveterate Russophobes of the US Congress.”

Analysts say that Russia’s leaders also want to convey in no uncertain terms that, after waiting for Trump to establish warmer ties, they’re now ready to get more adversarial if need be.

“They are testing the Trump administration,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. As a candidate, Trump had criticized the Obama administration’s tense relations with Moscow, arguing that he would improve ties.

But this latest diplomatic slap highlights a flurry of minor clashes, most recently Wednesday, when Moscow accused a US-allied NATO jet of intercepting a plane carrying their defense minister.

The same day, Jeh Johnson, homeland security secretary under President Barack Obama, told lawmakers that President Vladimir Putin himself directed the cyber assault on the US election.

“From the perspective of the Kremlin, nothing major has changed yet, and they’re losing patience,” said Farkas, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Irritants have piled up in recent weeks, and on Tuesday, the Treasury Department announced it would reinforce existing sanctions related to the ongoing violence in Ukraine.

“These designations will maintain pressure on Russia to work toward a diplomatic solution” on Ukraine, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said.

The sanctions announcement broke just days before Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov was set to meet his US counterpart in St. Petersburg to explore ways to improve the strained relationship, an initiative spearheaded by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who gained deep experience in Russia as the former CEO of ExxonMobil.

Instead, Russia canceled the meeting, which Ryabkov said the sanctions had made pointless.

“We regret that the new American leadership takes the lead of inveterate Russophiles of the US Congress,” Ryabkov said in a statement posted on the foreign ministry’s website. He accused lawmakers of trying “to nullify any prospects for stabilizing US-Russia relations.”

Destabilizing factors

Other destabilizing factors in the US-Russia relationship include:

— A Senate bill now in the House that would slap new sanctions on Russia and curb Trump’s ability to ease them.

— Near misses between US and Russian fighter jets over the Baltic Sea.

— The US decision to shoot down a Syrian plane, which led Moscow to announce it would consider suspending a deconfliction line with the US.

— Friction over Russian diplomatic compounds in the US that the Obama administration seized in retaliation for Moscow’s election interference.

And on Wednesday, Johnson, the former homeland security secretary, told lawmakers that “the Russian government, at the direction of Vladimir Putin himself, orchestrated cyberattacks on our nation for the purpose of influencing our election. That is a fact, plain and simple.”

The abrupt break of diplomatic talks comes ahead of a possible meeting between Trump and Putin at a July summit, with no indication that tensions could ease before then.

Angela Stent, director of the Eurasian, Russian and Eastern Studies program at Georgetown University, said the move was meant “to signal that there are limits to which Russia is willing to accept more US sanctions and set a benchmark for when the two presidents meet next month.”

To some degree, the Russian reaction to the Treasury announcement is the standard response when the US levies sanctions and is intended in large part for domestic audiences, Stent said.

The highest levels in Moscow

Other Russia scholars point out that Putin has particular domestic considerations that could have repercussions for the Trump White House. Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, said the decision to cancel the diplomatic talks was very likely made at the highest levels in Moscow.

“If there’s one thing Putin can’t afford right now it’s to look weak or vulnerable in the run up to his own re-election in March 2018,” Rojansky said. Early on, Trump’s rhetoric about improving relations with Russia and his flattering words about Putin may have led Moscow to envision a improved relationship driven by “a clear quid pro quo,” Rojansky said.

“We would promise to return their diplomatic property; they would treat our diplomats properly,” Rojansky offered as an example. “Not beat them up, not leave poop in their apartments. … Then we could get to more substantive discussions about who is our enemy in Syria.”

According to an exclusive Buzzfeed report, Tillerson has proposed a policy that would amount to a continuation of the Obama administration approach — cooperating with Russia where possible on shared strategic goals, pushing back where needed and trying to maintain overall stability.

That more-of-the-same approach wouldn’t appeal to Putin, who would be wary of looking weak by cooperating with the US, Rojansky said. Russia’s narrative blames the US and Europe for its economic woes.

“I think what Putin is signaling is that if you are simultaneously adding to sanctions while expecting to do quid pro quo diplomacy with us, that’s too big of a risk” for him politically, Rojansky said. “So instead of quid pro quo it will be tit for tat.”

Russian diplomats have stressed recently that Moscow will take measures to retaliate for the seized diplomatic compounds if they aren’t returned soon. And on Wednesday, Ryabkov promised retaliation for the renewed sanctions.

“There will be a response”

“There will be a response to the new American attack,” he said. “including practical retaliatory measures on our part.”

All of this is unfolding as Russia continues to shadow the President at home. The White House is operating amid investigations into alleged collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Moscow and the possibility Trump tried to obstruct those inquiries.

That has likely slowed any shift in US policy toward Moscow, as has another basic factor: The administration has yet to fully staff Russia-related positions at the White House and State Department or clearly articulate how it will approach the Kremlin.

“This administration still has no clear policy on Russia,” Farkas said. “Until they lay out what it is, everyone’s going to be nervous and testing them and try to pull a policy out of them. We need a clear policy in order to reduce the likelihood for miscalculation.”