Imagine the gale-force political winds that it takes to make Donald Trump do something he doesn’t want to do. Yet that’s what happened earlier this week when the president grudgingly approved a new suite of sanctions on Russia passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress. That he signed the bill in private signalled his extreme reluctance—this is the man who threw a soiree in the Rose Garden after doomed GOP health care legislation made it through just the House. Trump, the former reality show star, only turns away the klieg lights under the most bitter circumstances, and that’s what this was.
A statement Trump released subsequently grumbled that the sanctions legislation was 'significantly flawed' and taunted Congress for thinking they had the aptitude to negotiate with Moscow. That got him no sympathy whatsoever from the Kremlin. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev barked in a tweet: 'The Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way.' By 'handing over executive power', Medvedev inevitably meant 'failed to stage a coup d’etat at the Capitol building'. Congress needs only two-thirds of both houses to override a White House veto and the sanctions legislation had already passed almost unanimously. Short of a putsch, Trump had no choice.
Yet despite all the teeth-gnashing, the struggle between Trump and Congress was over only a few degrees of diplomatic adjustment rather than a full 180 in Washington’s approach to the Kremlin. My country’s relations with Russia have cratered to their lowest point since the Cold War and it didn’t happen overnight. Amidst all the fulminations over 'collusion', the screaming CNN chyrons and the magnifying glass-wielding liberals hunting for clues of Kremlin influence over their local apartment co-ops, the fact is that Donald Trump has been far tougher on Russia than he’s been given credit for. This is just a partial list: he’s continued America’s military buildup in Eastern Europe, declared that Crimea was 'taken' from Ukraine, trashed the Soviet Union forwards and backwards in Poland, bombed an airbase where Russians had been just hours prior in Syria, and attacked Moscow’s Iranian and Assadist proxies.
Vitriolic op-eds pronouncing that the GOP is the 'party of Putin' thus land with a fizzle. Trump has always had a blind spot over Russia’s undisputed interference in last year’s presidential election—the sanctions are meant as retaliation for that—but he’s hardly a Kremlin patsy. He prefers Twitter threats to military action, simple shows of strength to messy geopolitical crises, which is why that Syrian airbase strike was a one-off, and why this most recent round of sanctions was met with hesitation. Given that Russia has already expelled 755 of its diplomatic staff working on relations with the United States—far more than were ejected at once by either side during the Cold War—one understands why he’s circumspect.
Sanctions are the USA’s point-and-click foreign policy panacea. They can be imposed quickly and enforced quietly with little political blowback. And even after 55 years of accomplishing little except cementing the regime in power, they often prove impossible to roll back. They certainly have their uses—I think Trump was right to slap sanctions on Venezuela’s leaders (while leaving alone its oil industry)—but does anyone really think more of the same is going to temper Russia’s government? Especially when France and Germany actually agree with Trump on this one? Or that the bill’s accompanying additional sanctions on Iran will be anything except a boon to hardline ayatollahs? Trump’s skepticism has earned him another week of bad headlines but that doesn’t mean it isn’t warranted.
Matt Purple is the deputy editor for Rare Politics