Putin’s retaliation to new U.S. sanctions
The U.S. and Russia took major steps into a new Cold War this week after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the American diplomatic missions in his country to reduce staff by 755 employees, in retaliation against new sanctions signed into law by President Trump. The U.S. employs 340 Americans in its embassy in Moscow and missions in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok; the rest are Russian support staff, including drivers and security guards. Putin said he held out hope that relations with Washington would “change for the better,” but added that was unlikely to happen anytime soon. In another challenge to the U.S. and its allies, Moscow made preparations to send up to 100,000 troops to Belarus and western Russia for military exercises on NATO’s eastern border. “The great concern,” said Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, “is they’re not going to leave.”
The Russia sanctions bill was passed by veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate in July as punishment for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. Under the new law, any individual or company that does business with Russia’s intelligence or defense sectors, undermines U.S. cybersecurity on behalf of Moscow, or invests large amounts in Russian energy pipelines could have assets frozen, U.S. visas revoked, or be banned from exporting goods to America. In a blow to Trump’s authority, the law also stops him from easing or lifting the sanctions without Congress’ approval. Trump said the bill contained a number of “clearly unconstitutional” provisions that restrict his ability to negotiate with Russia; he said that he signed it “for the sake of national unity.”
What the editorials said
“Twenty-five years after the Cold War ended,” relations between the U.S. and Russia “are back in a deep freeze,” said The Washington Post. But the sanctions that have so angered Putin “did not appear out of thin air.” They were a “logical response” to the Russian leader’s “bad choices,” including his decision “to seize Crimea from Ukraine” and to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton—who angered him by calling the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections rigged.
The sanctions hit Putin where it hurts, said BloombergView.com. Russia’s already ailing economy will shrink even more ahead of the 2018 presidential election, and foreign firms will think twice before engaging with “the oligarchs and quasi-state-owned companies that are beholden to Putin.” It’s generally a good idea for a president to have flexibility on sanctions, said The Wall Street Journal. “But Trump’s flirtation with Putin has brought this bill’s limitation on himself.” Still, by signing it, Trump has sent a powerful message to the Kremlin: “There is a political consensus in the U.S. that won’t tolerate meddling in U.S. elections.”
What the columnists said
If Putin bet on a Trump presidency, “that bet has now backfired, spectacularly,” said David E. Sanger in The New York Times. In trying to tip the election in the real estate mogul’s favor, Putin gambled that the authoritarian-loving Trump would treat Russia “as the superpower it once was.” But the Russian leader didn’t reckon on the bipartisan backlash that their cozy relationship would spark in Washington. As a result, “Trump’s hands are now tied in dealing with Moscow, probably for years to come.”
Let’s hope Trump’s critics are happy, said Will Ricciardella in DailyCaller.com. They spent the last year screeching that Trump and Putin were too close. “A table-side conversation between Trump and Putin after dinner in July at the G-20 summit was treated as an ‘undisclosed meeting’”; attempts by Trump to engage with Russia on Syria were dismissed as a clandestine conspiracy. Well, congratulations, Trump haters: You’ve finally gotten the diplomatic crisis you wanted.
Trump will now have to decide “how much of a new Cold War he wants to have with his old friend,” said Heather Hulburt in NYMag.com. He’s caught between Congress and a “much-disappointed” Putin whose help Trump needs to keep Syria “at a simmer instead of a boil,” and to stave off trouble in North Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. That would be a difficult line for even a deft president to walk, let alone one whose White House is seemingly in chaos. “Moscow’s greatest win yet from Trump is that Putin now seems to be the only leader who knows what he’s doing.” ■