Disappointment—extreme disappointment—marks what the year 2017 has been in US-Russian relations. The relationship is stuck. The hole in which it is stuck is deep and dark—and growing more so. Each side had hoped for better. Moscow, having given up on the Obama Administration, momentarily deluded itself into thinking the fuzzy campaign talk of Donald Trump heralded a fresh U.S. approach to the relationship. Figures in the new Administration, including Trump himself, rather cavalierly assumed they could cut deals with the Putin leadership, lift sanctions, drive a wedge between Russia and troublesome actors, such as Syria and Iran, and, thus, set relations on a more constructive path. As the more sober among them, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, put it: “Our relationship is at the lowest level it’s been at since the Cold War and it’s spiraling down. The two greatest nuclear powers in the world cannot have this kind of relationship. We have to stabilize it and we have to start finding a way back.”
But they have failed, and the seeds of this failure sprouted almost from the start. Scarcely three weeks into the new Administration, senior cabinet officials were sounding themes, including criticism of Russia, hardly different from their predecessors. Soon after, the relationship settled into its current fractious pattern: promising noises came out of foreign ministers’ meetings and the Hamburg and the Hanoi summits, only to give way to angry denunciations over incidents like the U.S. attack following Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons last April or the imposition of still another round of sanctions. One day the two sides would announce the start of “strategic stability talks,” the next, they would engage in a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats. One day they would speak of potential progress toward the installation of a peace-keeping force in eastern Ukraine or a renewed effort in Geneva to advance a peace settlement in Syria; the next day they would accuse the other side of insincerity and obstructing steps forward.
US Sanctions Against Russia: The Forecast for 2018
The US sanctions bill (PL 115-44) offers a clear idea of the parameters and dimensions of the US sanctions policy for 2018. Approved by Congress on August 2, 2017, the Act outlines specific forms of executive reporting on the course and trends in implementing the sanctions. This makes it possible to forecast events in 2018 that will largely reflect the basic parameters of restrictive pressure on Russia.
The year began on Trump’s Inauguration Day with his ill-fated national security advisor, Michael Flynn, exulting before a business associate over the Administration’s plans to lift sanctions on Russia. It ended with President Trump ordering the imposition of new sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s alleged violation of the INF treaty. During the intervening months, the toxic issue of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election exploded, submerging all other dimensions of the relationship in its poison. The damage done was greater still, because the Russian side refused to recognize its seriousness and viewed it as an artifice of American politics, and the U.S. congress made it a preoccupation, but chose to deal with it in utterly unproductive—indeed, counter-productive—fashion.
Unattended, the issue has immobilized the Trump Administration and paralyzed any thought of reaching for common ground with Russia. On the Russian side, it has hardened the view that the Americans are hopeless and there is no reason to change anything Russia is doing. As a result the relationship bounces erratically from one issue—Ukraine, Syria, INF, Iran, sanctions, North Korea—to the next, none yielding progress, each framed increasingly in the tendentious language of the past.
It is difficult to see how 2018 will change much, if any of this—not when neither side is willing or able to rise above its current narrow preoccupations, serious as some of these are, and weigh the consequences of failing to address together a multipolar nuclear world threatening to spin out of control, a European security picture once again descending into a dangerous military confrontation, the resource conflicts to come from climate change, and the tragedy of the United States and Russia translating the rise of new great powers, in particular, China, into strategic rivalry, rather than strategic cooperation.