“False Controversy Swirls Over Russian Sanctions
National security experts say tweaks in Moscow policy initiated by career bureaucrats, not Trump”
By Brendan Kirby
February 3, 2017
News broke Thursday that the Treasury Department was easing sanctions on Russia’s spy agency, and President Donald Trump’s critics went bonkers.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, noted on the Senate floor that the government was lifting sanctions on the same day that Rex Tillerson took the oath as secretary of state.
“Payback?” asked Barack Obama political spinmeister David Axelrod on Twitter.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tweeted that Russia launched “massive cyber attack to help @realDonaldTrump win last Nov. Now he eases sanctions. Thank you @POTUS for making Russia First.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) added in his own tweet: “#RussianHacking attacked our democracy. They should pay a price. @POTUS rewards them by rolling back sanctions against their team of hackers.”
“What I saw being discussed is that there were amendments and tweaks from the civil service employees and these are not a Trump administration initiative,” said Ariel Cohen, director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security. “It was a technical amendment to make some of the language more clear and was initiated in the Obama era.”
But a leading Russia expert told LifeZette that the changes are relatively minor and appear not to have come from Trump or his political appointees.
The Treasury Department, after all, has no Trump political appointees yet. The Senate has yet to confirm Trump treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin.
Sanctions Were Retaliation for Election
Former President Obama slapped sanctions on the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the spy agency known as the FSB, in retaliation for Russia’s alleged role in stealing emails from top Democratic Party officials during the 2016 election campaign. The regulations prohibit U.S. companies from selling technology to the FSB.
The changes published Thursday keep that prohibition in place. But they make clear that the sanctions do not inhibit American technology firms from continuing to do business with Russian entities that are not affected by the sanctions. The original language caused confusion about whether American companies could export some consumer electronics products to Russia because the FSB must license those products.
Trump, himself, denied, that he was hitting the brakes on sanctions against Russia. “I haven’t eased anything,” Trump told a reporter who shouted a question at the White House.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the change was a “regular course of action.”
NBC News reported that Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, confirmed that there would be no changes to the sanctions imposed after Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.
Robert Kaufman, a public policy professor at Pepperdine University, said he knows Ukrainians in Philadelphia who closely monitor Russia and have been concerned about Trump’s conciliatory comments about Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
“I haven’t heard peep from these people,” he said.
Kaufman, a Russia hawk, said he would be concerned if the Trump administration rolled back sanctions. The technical changes published Thursday do not offer guidance on that, he said.
“That’s not what you should be look[ing] at. It should be what Trump does with the whole sanctions regime in general … That’s the big enchilada,” he said. “This is in no way an indicator of how it’s going to go one way or another.”
Cohen, who recently returned from a trip to Russia, said it does not appear the Kremlin is eager to compromise. He said he does not believe Trump would unilaterally lift sanctions without getting something in return.
“If you read Trump’s books, I don’t think Mr. Trump makes concessions for the sake of making concessions,” he said. “Trump is playing his cards close to his chest.”
Sanctions Are ‘Leverage’
Clare Lopez, vice president of policy and analysis at the Center for Security Policy, said it would be a mistake to ease sanctions prematurely.
“Sanctions are one of the areas where we have some leverage, and leverage we ought to use,” she said. “You don’t throw sanctions on the table first as an offering.”
Lopez said sanctions should not be lifted without a discussion on a broad range of issues, from nuclear missiles to Russia’s continuing involvement in Ukraine to the Middle East.
“Rather than focus on one aspect of what is a very broad relationship … they have to look at the full spectrum of issues,” she said. “We have every right to demand Russia’s proxy militia forces fighting in eastern Ukraine be ended.”
Lopez said it is possible Russia might agree to a deal that would end the Syrian conflict — perhaps by agreeing to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave office in exchange for a Russia-friendly successor from Assad’s Alawite sect. A deal that also included safe zones in the country might be acceptable to the Syrian Free Army and benefit America by easing the refugee crisis that has become a flash point in America, Lopez said.
That would allow the United States to turn its full attention to destroying the Islamic State, Lopez added.
Cohen said that if there is one potential area where the United States and Russia might find common ground, it’s Syria.
“Mr. Trump’s priorities, if I read it correctly, is radical Islam and China,” he said. “Mr. Trump wants to put Russia aside and try to work with Russia on these things if he can. He may be disappointed if Russia doesn’t play ball.”
But Kaufman, the Pepperdine professor, said America’s three biggest threats are Russia, China, and Iran. He said Trump should not make concessions to any of them for help against another.
“That would be dangerous and enabling Putin’s quest,” he said.