Though the new sanctions law which has just been passed by the US Congress will have little actual impact on the Russian economy, no one should be in any doubt about Russian anger on this issue.
That anger has expressed itself in a number of ways.
Firstly there are the stiff comments from President Putin himself made on the eve of the passage of the new sanctions law
We have not seen the final version yet and we do not have a final opinion on this matter. But we see that for a long period of time, there have been ongoing attempts to provoke us – many Russian diplomats were expelled with no explanation of the reason and diplomatic property was seized, which is beyond comprehension as it violates fundamental norms of international law regarding diplomatic relations. The sanctions are absolutely illegal from the perspective of international law and they violate the principles of international trade and World Trade Organisation rules. As you know, we are being very restrained and patient, but at some point we will have to respond. We cannot tolerate this loutish behaviour towards our country forever. But how we respond will depend on the final version of the bill that is being debated in the US Senate.
Then there was the Russian decision on 28th July 2017 to cut down sharply the numbers of personnel at US embassies and consulates in the US.
I discussed this at length here, and also in an interview with RT America.
As I explained both in my article and in this interview with RT America, I do not think the scale of the Russian retaliation as represented by these expulsions has fully sunk in.
Certainly it is true that this retaliation is specifically a response to the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and the seizure of Russian property in the US by the Obama administration in December, and not to the last sanctions law. However it goes well beyond a symmetrical response to those expulsions and will unquestionably hurt the work of US diplomatic missions in Russia and the intelligence gathering and ‘democracy promotion’ activities that they undertake.
Not surprisingly, the mood in the US embassy in Moscow is said to be “grim”.
However the message sent by these statements and measures has now been capped by two extraordinary statements from two senior Russian officials.
The first was one made by Vasily Nebenzia, Russia’s new ambassador to the UN
Those who invented this bill, if they were thinking that they might change our policy they were wrong, as history many times proved. They should have known better that we do not bend and do not break
These defiant words – which Nebenzia was however careful to qualify with more emollient ones – have now been taken much further by the words coming from a far more important official: Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
The US President’s signing of the package of new sanctions against Russia will have a few consequences. First, it ends hopes for improving our relations with the new US administration. Second, it is a declaration of a full-fledged economic war on Russia. Third, the Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way. This changes the power balance in US political circles.
What does it mean for them? The US establishment fully outwitted Trump; the President is not happy about the new sanctions, yet he could not but sign the bill. The issue of new sanctions came about, primarily, as another way to knock Trump down a peg. New steps are to come, and they will ultimately aim to remove him from power. A non-systemic player has to be removed. Meanwhile, the interests of the US business community are all but ignored, with politics chosen over a pragmatic approach. Anti-Russian hysteria has become a key part of both US foreign policy (which has occurred many times) and domestic policy (which is a novelty).
The sanctions regime has been codified and will remain in effect for decades unless a miracle happens. This legislation is going to be harsher than the Jackson-Vanik amendment as it is overarching and cannot be lifted by a special presidential order without Congress’ approval. Thus, relations between Russia and the United States are going to be extremely tense regardless of Congress’ makeup and regardless of who is president. Lengthy arguments in international bodies and courts are ahead, as well as rising international tensions and refusal to settle major international issues.
What does it mean for us? We will steadily continue our work on developing the economy and social sector, take efforts to substitute imports, and solve major national tasks, relying mostly on ourselves. We have learned to do so in the past few years, in conditions of almost closed financial markets as well as foreign investors’ and creditors’ fear of investing in Russia upon penalty of sanctions against third parties and countries. To some extent, this has even been to our advantage, although sanctions are meaningless overall. We will cope.
This is extraordinary language. It says there is now no hope of improving relations with the new US administration and it straightforwardly accuses President Trump’s political opponents in the US of preparing to remove him. It makes clear that there is no prospect of the US and Russia establishing normal inter-country in any foreseeable future.
I said as much myself recently on Crosstalk, but these words coming from the second ranking official of the Russian government after President Putin himself, and the man who is frequently accused (though wrongly in my opinion) of leading the Atlanticist faction within the Kremlin, carry a particular resonance and authority.
Why then are the Russians so angry?
The first and obvious point is that the new sanctions must be particularly exasperating to the Russians since they have done nothing to provoke them. Though the Russians undoubtedly consider themselves to be in the right on the Ukrainian conflict – the pretext for the previous sanctions – there is at least a conflict underway between the US and Russia over Ukraine and in the context of that conflict the sanctions make a kind of sense.
By contrast there is no cause for the latest sanctions at all. The Russians furiously deny – almost certainly rightly – that they meddled in last year’s US election either as alleged or at all. Besides given the US’s long history of meddling in everyone else’s elections – including Russia’s – the pretext for the US’s latest sanctions – that the Russians meddled in last year’s US elections – must seem to the Russians both extraordinarily offensive and even bizarre.
Beyond this however is what must be for the Russians the shocking revelation of both the extent and the pathological quality of the hostility to them within the US political elite.
To understand this it is merely necessary to review what has happened in the US over the last year. The American people in their election constitutionally elected the one candidate who campaigned for better relations with Russia. That outcome has been set aside, and the very right to hold office of that candidate who was constitutionally elected is being threatened, ostensibly because he won the election on that very platform.
In other words the US political elite is prepared to set aside its own long cherished constitutional mechanisms in order to prevent a rapprochement between the US and Russia. As Medvedev says
Anti-Russian hysteria has become a key part of both US foreign policy (which has occurred many times) and domestic policy (which is a novelty).
Even if one takes a cynical view of this manoeuvre – as Medvedev does – and sees it as purely a device in US domestic politics used to remove a ‘non-system politician’ it still speaks of a state of hostility towards Russia on the part of the US elite which is frankly pathological. Given intensity of this hostility – and its total irrationality – the Russians can be forgiven for wondering whether there is anything which can ever be done to change it.
President Putin has recently taken to comparing the West’s current Russophobia to the pathological and irrational anti-semitism which caused such a catastrophe in Europe in the 1940s. Given what the Russians have seen coming out of the US over the course of the last year it is not difficult to see why some of them – like Putin – are starting to make the comparison.
One of the reasons why I have always harboured doubts that Medvedev really is that the Atlanticist that he is often made out to be is that he frequently expresses him more forthrightly on the US than Putin does. Contrast the strength and anger of Medvedev’s comments with Putin’s far more emollient ones
As regards the investigations you have mentioned, I do not think it is an investigation, because an investigation would imply considering all the circumstances, examining the causes and hearing from different parties. What we are seeing is merely growing anti-Russian hysteria. Most likely, Russophobic tools are being used for domestic political purposes, in this case the fight between President Trump and his political opponents in the United States.
It is a great pity that Russian-US relations are sacrificed in the course of resolving internal US political issues.
Answering your question on whether I regret the worsening of Russian-US relations, I can answer directly: of course we regret this. It is a shame, because if we worked together, we could resolve the pressing issues that concern both Russia and the United States much more efficiently. I am speaking of solving acute international crises, tackling terrorism, nature conservation, resolving environmental problems, handling illegal migration, fighting organised crime and so on, and contributing to economic development ultimately. But we know we have many friends in the United States, and there are many sober-minded people. I hope that someday the current state of affairs will come to an end and we will move on to a qualitatively different kind of relationship, which we will strengthen and boost in the interests of the people of the United States and the Russian Federation.
Where Medvedev has completely given up on the US and says that Russia should focus on building itself up through self-reliance, Putin continues to say that Russia has “many friends” there, and that the “many sober-minded people” in the US will ensure that one day the US comes to its senses about Russia.
Perhaps Putin is right. However I suspect that on this issue Medvedev’s views are far more in line with popular and indeed elite opinion in Moscow than Putin’s are. One person who senses this is, and who is obviously concerned about it, is President Trump himself, as shown by his latest tweet on the subject
Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2017
Unfortunately apart from a handful of people such as his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Old Guard realists like Henry Kissinger, and a few mavericks like Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, he seems almost alone within the US elite in seeing it or being concerned about it.