Whilst US President Obama in the last weeks of his Presidency churns out ever more sanctions against Russia, a group of 10 US Senators including five Republicans is said to be preparing to codify some of Obama’s Ukraine related sanctions into law.
Obama’s sanctions were made by Executive Order so without a formal law passed by Congress Trump as President can simply cancel them with the stroke of a pen.
In theory a law would make it more difficult for him to do so. In practice the proposed law, as is the case with most congressionally mandated sanctions, includes a national security waiver that allows the President to stall their implementation. If Trump decides to disregard the law, he can therefore probably do so.
The five Republican Senators backing the law are the usual suspects: John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse and Rob Portman. Trump will not be surprised or especially dismayed by this move coming from them.
The Russians have already made Donald Trump’s position easier by announcing today that they will not let the sanctions issue stand in the way of any steps Donald Trump makes by way of improving relations with Russia. Here is what President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov had to say about this issue today
Certainly, sanctions are an element that very negatively affect bilateral relations, but still even under the backdrop of sanctions, Moscow would, undoubtedly, welcome any prospect for dialogue and it is ready for that.
Western discussion about the sanctions is clouded by misunderstanding. In 2014 the sanctions had a serious effect on Russia. Russia was struggling with sharply reduced income from its energy sales at the same time as Russian companies were struggling to pay off the debts they owed to Western banks, many of which matured that year. This was an important factor in contributing to the rouble’s crash in December 2014.
Since then with every month that passes the negative effect of the sanctions on Russia’s economy diminishes, whilst their positive effect increases. The Russians have largely paid off the foreign debt their companies owed Western banks (Russian Central Bank Chair Nabiullina says they will have done so entirely by the end of this year) whilst their economy has successfully adjusted to the lower oil prices and is now growing again.
Meanwhile the sanctions have provided the Russians with the pretext to impose counter-sanctions of their own, which have greatly helped their farming industry, whilst giving them both the incentive and the means to strengthen their financial system, which until recently was the weak point of their economy.
There is a strong case that the sanctions are currently actually working to Russia’s advantage, and that it is in Russia’s interest at least for the moment to have them continue.
I suspect that many of the people who call for the sanctions to be continued, and who pressed for them to be imposed in the first place, do not realise this and refuse to understand it, even when it is pointed out to them, because their conception of Russia’s economy is at least a decade out of date.
As it happens I suspect that Trump will at least soften the sanctions, even if he doesn’t do away with them entirely. Not only does he seem to be genuinely committed to improving relations with Russia, but as a businessman and as someone who seems to have good links to the US oil industry, he seems to have a better understanding of Russia’s economy and of how it is US business rather than Russia which over time will suffer from the sanctions than do those who call for the sanctions to be continued do.
As for the Russians, the diminishing negative effect of the sanctions, and their increasingly positive effect on their economy, explains why they are so relaxed about them.