On August 2, President Donald Trump signed a bill that brings a fresh wave of sanctions against Russia. The president brought the new legislation into effect on Wednesday in a move that particularly targets Russia’s energy and defence sectors, but conversely limits Trump’s ability to influence the severity of sanctions against Russia in future.

These latest sanctions target those who invest in Russia’s energy export pipelines; conduct transactions with defence and intelligence services; or any company that might be perceived to undermine US cyber security. Crucially, the bill contains a 30-day review period, allowing Congress to vote down any proposed changes that might come from the president’s office. It is hard to see this as anything other than a restraining mechanism on Trump to avoid executive interference with regard to Russia.

These sanctions are the latest in a string of measures taken by the United States to punish Russia for its occupation and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014. Further sanctions were imposed by the Obama administration in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

Russia’s role in the election of President Trump is under intense scrutiny, and is the subject of several independent investigations. How much the president knew about Russian involvement – and whether he is indeed guilty of collusion – are also matters under scrutiny. Trump’s signing of Wednesday’s bill adds yet more colour to a saga that has already lasted months and shows no signs of abating.

The start of a potential ‘trade war’

The signing of the bill throws up some interesting points for discussion. Does the inclusion of a 30-day review period imply that Congress does not trust the president when it comes to Russia? Is it an attempt to reduce the president’s power in dealings with Moscow?

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev certainly seems to think so. He claims that the Trump administration has demonstrated “total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress”. In a post on Facebook, Medvedev described the US’ actions as a “declaration of a fully-fledged trade war on Russia.”

If a trade war does develop, it seems unlikely that Russia will be able to compete with the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the latest sanctions by expelling 755 US diplomats and seizing US diplomatic property in Russia. However, these retaliatory measures pale in comparison with the sanctions that the US has imposed, and will cause little economic irritation to Washington. Furthermore, Putin’s actions mirror those of the Obama administration in 2016, when 35 Russian diplomats were expelled and two diplomatic compounds seized. Putin must be seen to be doing something in response, but in reality his options are limited.

russia sanctions map

A map of the countries that placed sanctions on Russia in 2014 in the wake of the Crimean annexation. Photo credit: Wikipedia CommonsSanctions could have a knock-on effect

The imposition of further sanctions could impact other countries. Russia will have to adapt in the energy sector and may look to increase the burden on consumers in Europe. Russia’s behaviour on the global stage will be under yet more scrutiny and, as, US Vice President Mike Pence made clear at the Adriatic Charter Summit on Wednesday, the US “will continue to hold Russia accountable for its actions.”

Any hostility between two of the world’s largest military powers is concerning. Relations between the US and Russia continue to worsen and the rhetoric from both sides is far from encouraging. In a survey conducted by The Chicago Council, 53% of Americans now believe that the US government should actively seek to limit Russia’s power, as opposed to 43% who would rather seek friendly cooperation and engagement. 

Can US-Russia relations recover? Or is there such a deep-seated, mutual feeling of mistrust that these two nations are incapable of working together? As the investigations unfold, information will come to light as to the scale of Russian interference in the US election and whether or not President Trump was himself in the loop. In the meantime, it remains clear that Washington has far more economic and diplomatic muscle at its disposal than Moscow, although President Trump appears to be signing away some of his executive powers in the process.

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