The Strategy Behind US Sanctions on Russia: Trump's Keeping America First


Despite Democrats’ manic tantrums on how President Donald Trump is controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and how Trump is Putin’s “poodle” and “puppet,” and, therefore, we are all doomed, the White House continues to develop and implement a strict and consistent anti-Russian policy.

On Aug. 8, the Trump administration announced that it will soon impose new sanctions in response to the Russian violation of Chemical and Biological Weapons Control Act by attempting an assassination of a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Great Britain this March.

Additionally, on Aug. 14, Congress introduced a bill called “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018,” that strengthens sanctions in energy and financial sectors, and puts a prohibition on transactions relating to Russian sovereign debt. There is also a provision requiring the secretary of state to submit a determination of whether Russia meets the criteria for a state sponsor of terrorism designation no later than 90 days after the Act is put in place.

The announcement of the new sanctions against Russia under new premises that are no longer exclusively connected to Russian aggression against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea has sparked a lively discussion on the Trump administration’s strategic goals and consequences.

The mainstream media often suggests that Trump would gladly partner with Putin if not for Democrats, “hawks” in Congress, and the military establishment. The other narrative concludes that Trump only imposes sanctions as a tool of a political struggle on the eve of midterm elections in November and uses anti-Russian rhetoric to beat his rivals.

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Both approaches fail to grasp the whole picture, in which president Trump is not only a survivor in a D.C. swamp but a strong believer in American global leadership, which is the absolute strategic goal of his policy that puts “America First.”

The much-vaunted mutual sympathy between Trump and Putin may be connected to their similar ideological beliefs in a strong national sovereignty, but not to their common interests, as there are none.

To secure America’s leading position and its ability to form a global agenda, the Trump administration seeks to strengthen and utilize its economic and military dominance and weaken the positions of its competitors. All actions of the administration must be viewed through a prism of this ultimate goal. Therefore, when Trump talks about “normalization” of relations with Russia, it only means that as long as Russia complies with the foreign policy of the U.S. and accept its leadership, they may work together on separate issues, such as fighting ISIS, for example. But there is no chance that the “draconian” and “far-fetched” sanctions, as characterized by the Russian Embassy in D.C., will be relieved.

Sanctions as a political tool

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With the rapid advancement of world trade during the last century and a merger of geopolitics and geoeconomics, economic sanctions have become a highly effective tool of foreign policy. Naturally, this is a luxury that may be afforded only to the most developed and prosperous countries. It’s no surprise that the U.S. has been the main initiator of sanctions in the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century — 109 out of 174 cases of sanctions were initiated by America.

As the U.S. continues to dominate the global economy and finances, which gives it a leverage to impose its political will and undermine the positions of the competitors, the Trump administration will not give up sanctions, and likely will expand them even further. The Trump administration has demonstrated its willingness to impose merciless economic and trade restrictions not only against China, Iran and Turkey, but also against European allies that do not share its global vision. Why would Russia be spared? No one gives a clear answer other than Crayola drawings of the spiderwebs of “Trump-Putin connections.”

Currently, the Trump administration views the Kremlin as a competitor in the European market of liquefied natural gas. Demand for natural gas — a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than coal or oil — is rising worldwide, and the U.S. is a growing supplier of it. The European Union is a major consumer and now is mainly dependent on Russia. “They (Europeans) will be able to diversify their energy supply, which they want very much to do, and we have plenty of it,” Trump said. Sanctions on the Russian energy sector, and primarily state-run Gazprom, are aimed to weaken its positions. At a NATO summit in July, Trump also criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her project of a new pipeline known as the Nord Stream II which carries Russian natural gas to Germany.

Russian response

In response to the new sanctions, the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs declared that they are working on “mirror” countermeasures against the United States. It’s difficult to tell what this means exactly, as a “mirror” implies an exact reflection of American sanctions.

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What’s more likely is the Russian government is now working extra hours to expose Ruble operations of American banks on the territory of the U.S. to demonstratively ban them, and are trying to find American oligarchs who hide their assets in Siberian off-shores.

Obviously, Russian retaliation will not be symmetrical as the Kremlin simply does not pose any adequate economic leverage against the U.S. It is symptomatic that the Russian Federal Law “On Measures (Countermeasures) in Response to Unfriendly Actions of the USA and (or) other Foreign States” that Vladimir Putin signed in June has a declarative nature. Open sources do not contain any information regarding products or raw materials that could potentially fall under import and/or export ban/restrictions. The decision on this question, as well as the list of “unfriendly foreign states,” has yet to be formally taken by the Russian president and government.

The Kremlin understands the possibility of further sanctions, including measures that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called a “declaration of economic war.” Currently, Russia’s response can only be asymmetrical and will take a long time to actually threaten the U.S.

An adequate countermeasure for Russia would be a global reorganization of Pax Americana with its financial dominance, and organization of an anti-American coalition.

Unfortunately for Putin’s Russia, this may only be achieved through the deep and revolutionary changes of the Russian economic and political system. These reforms would have to be aimed not only to strengthen Russia’s economic positions — according to IMF statistics, Russia’s share in the global GDP is a pitiful 1.8 percent — but also to improve Russian international image to the point when other countries see it as a more promising and attractive partner than the U.S.

During his 18-year rule, Putin has clearly shown his inability to even remotely achieve these goals.

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