Featured 06 Aug 2017 Sanctions may lead t ...
A former senior journalist in Washington D.C., Dr Sridhar Krishnaswami is Professor and Head of the Dept. of Journalism and Mass Communication, SRM University, Chennai. Views expressed are personal.

Sanctions may lead to Cold War II

Published Aug 6, 2017, 3:15 am IST
Updated Aug 6, 2017, 3:15 am IST
The bottom line is indeed quite clear and one that the Trump White House would have to play carefully.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump at the G20 Summit in Germany.
 Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump at the G20 Summit in Germany.

The irony is that while the special counsel in the Russia probe is investigating Donald Trump’s links with Russia, the Republican Party joined a rare bipartisan move in ordering sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, a move that is certain to trigger an outright trade war. The situation may not yet sport all the contours of the First Cold War, but how far are we from another cold war?

If there is considerable angst in the international community over the recent goings on in the United States, it is not without good reasons. A directionless administration in Washington is giving allies and adversaries the jitters by seemingly putting in place all the ingredients for the start of a Second or a New Cold War just precisely when the world was looking at ways to strengthen ties economically and commercially. The debate of sanctions as a tool of foreign policy is not new in the United States’ Executive or Legislative branches; and if President Donald Trump is looking at the new Russia sanctions as a “dangerously flawed” piece of legislation that among other things takes foreign policy making away from the executive branch, he would not be the first American President to have taken umbrage at the role of Congress in foreign policy making.

 

The reaction from Moscow was truly scathing with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev making the point that “a full fledged trade war” has been declared against Russia and that the Trump administration had demonstrated “complete impotence in the most humiliating manner” by transferring executive powers to Congress. What hurts Russia in the new round of economic sanctions is the focus on the energy sector that is already hurting by existing 2014 sanctions and by the fall in crude oil prices. More than this, the sanctions legislation sailed through the House of Representatives and the Senate in an overwhelming  manner with the proviso that the President cannot repeal the punitive measures without Congressional oversight. That provision has hurt the Trump White House badly.

 

The sanctions showed a full-fledged trade war. The Trump administration demonstrated complete impotence, in the most humiliating manner, transferring executive powers to Congress.
—Dmitry Medvedev Russian Prime Minister

Ironically, the issue of Russia sanctions has been hurting President Trump almost from the day he stepped into the White House. Talking of taking the chill out of relations with Moscow during the campaign days was one thing. But it has become a totally different matter these days with many legally questioning if members of the Trump elections team did talk about the issue of easing the 2014 sanctions that were slapped in the aftermath of the crisis over Crimea and alleged Russian meddling in the Ukraine.

 

The Europeans were roped into the First Round of sanctions and many came around but only reluctantly. Analysts are making the point that the latest round of sanctions has left many wondering in the European Union if it would affect the region’s energy security. American companies are said to be barred from any involvement in the energy sector if Russian firms have a stake of 33 per cent or more. The limitations on American investments have reportedly left a sense of unease in the home domestic business houses. Worse, foreign companies planning to be a part of Russian energy exploration sector could also come under the lens of sanctions. A case in point, it is being pointed out, are German firms involved in pipelines carrying natural gas to Europe.

 

But Russia and sanctions were not the only things that came between the Trump White House and Capitol Hill. A lot of the unease even within the Grand Old Party were allegations of Russian meddling in the last American Presidential Election by undermining the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, may have dismissed “meddling” in American elections as nothing more than “anti-Russia hysteria” ; but the fact remains that evasive and non-answers on the subject from the American President together with his rants on the Attorney General and the Special Prosecutor have only made things worse. Generally too there has been a perception that the Trump administration is not well coordinated in foreign policy, especially between the White House and the State Department, leading to frequent divergent views or lack of coherence.

 

I just hope the final determination is a truly honest one, which is what the millions of people who gave us our win in November deserve and what all Americans want and deserve.
—Donald Trump on outcome of Russia probe

“While the American people surely hope for better relations with Russia, what this legislation truly represents is their insistence that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and his regime must pay a real price for attacking our democracy, violating human rights, occupying Crimea, and destabilising Ukraine” remarked Senator John McCain. But what senior law makers like McCain do know but conveniently forget is that Washington has also interfered in the politics of democracies and dictatorships and with impunity. The “how can you do it to me” is what bothers many in the Washington political circuits and coming to haunt the Trump White House.

 

The squeeze on Moscow’s energy and defence sectors through the new sanctions came at a time when the two countries were already jostling over diplomats and embassy properties. Responding to alleged Russian meddling in American Presidential elections, President Barack Obama seized two Russian diplomatic properties; and even before President Trump reluctantly signed off on the new sanctions Moscow had already given the marching orders to more than 750 American diplomatic employees with the promise that more could be on the way. Two American diplomatic properties were also confiscated by Russia.

 

The new sanctions on Iran and Russia passed the Senate by a 98-2   margin and after more than a month the House of Representatives added North Korea to the list and passed it by a margin of 419-3. President Trump was left with no option but to sign knowing full well that Congress would not hesitate to take action if he had used the veto power. More than the veto and the certainty of over-riding the veto, the Trump White House essentially cornered itself into a hole from where there was no escape. And all this for a President who wanted a roll back on the state of relations with Russia but on terms that were totally unacceptable to law makers.

 

Without a doubt Putin is keen on bringing back the glory, prestige and power the Soviet Union once enjoyed, be it in its backyard or beyond. In the last several years the Russian leader has kept himself busy in the realm of foreign policy that many American law makers may not find too appealing.

Much of the future of Washington-Moscow relations is going to hinge on the Trump White House and in the extent to which the American President is going to come away clean on the Russia investigations. Law makers are already perked up to the diatribes of President Trump towards his Attorney General and musings on Presidential pardons. Thus far there have been no conclusive findings on Russian involvement in American elections; but the White House rumblings on the scope of the Special Prosecutor’s enquiry may well set the stage for a political showdown that will not be in the best interests of either U.S.-Russia relations or the Trump administration itself. The bottom line is indeed quite clear and one that the Trump White House would have to play carefully.

 

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