In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Trump and Putin in Helsinki

Trump and Russia: ‘Quid Pro Quo’ or Quid Pro Talk?

April 18, 2019
RM Staff

A few weeks before today’s release of the voluminous Mueller report, a former New York Times executive editor, Max Frankel, argued in an op-ed that the Trump campaign and “Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy” had reached an “obvious bargain” in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election: The “overarching deal,” he writes, was Russian “help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for … a new pro-Russian foreign policy, starting with relief from the Obama administration’s burdensome economic sanctions.” As proof of the American side of the bargain the author cites his impression that, since taking office, “President Trump has watered down the sanctions and otherwise appeased Russian interests.”

Frankel is not the first to accuse Trump of diluting Russia sanctions and/or appeasing Putin. Early this year dozens of members of Congress tried to stop the administration from lifting sanctions on companies controlled by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska; when a Senate effort to do so failed in January, its leading Democrat, Chuck Schumer, accused 42 Republican colleagues of choosing “to stand with Vladimir Putin” because they “are too afraid of breaking with President Trump.” Last year, two senior analysts from the Center for American Progress (a group founded by top aides of Trump’s one-time Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton) wrote that the administration “refused to implement new, legally mandated sanctions against Russia in January [2018].” They were likely referring to punitive measures required under the CAATSA sanctions package, which the president grudgingly signed into law in August 2017 after his hand was forced by “veto-proof majorities” in Congress. Like Frankel, other authors have also accused Trump of appeasing Russia, and worse, especially after the two leaders met last year in Helsinki. Republican lawmakers criticized the president, in particular for publicly taking Putin’s word over that of the U.S. intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and thus making America look “like a pushover.” The New Yorker dubbed the meeting an “appeasement summit,” quoting Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass’ view that Trump seemed unwilling “to speak truth to Russian power.” More recently, political analyst Fareed Zakaria asked whether Venezuela will “be the moment when Trump finally ends his appeasement” of Putin’s Russia.

We wanted to test the claims at the end of Frankel’s piece: Has Trump indeed weakened sanctions against Russia and has he appeased Russia in ways that have helped advance its interests? Unfortunately, the author did not specify which sanctions or interests he means, so we’ve had to cast a wide net.

The results of our effort are below. Overall, we found: (1) that Trump’s administration lifted one set of sanctions introduced under his predecessor and wielded another less forcefully than intended by lawmakers, but also sanctioned dozens of new people and organizations in Russia, including some very close to Putin; and (2) that—despite words and actions by Trump that may have boosted Russia’s global-stage cred and undermined the authority of U.S. institutions—his administration has taken many more steps detrimental to Moscow’s actual national interests than beneficial to them. As various authors have pointed out, this does not necessarily reflect Trump’s own intentions toward Russia as there is an important distinction to be made between the president and his administration. Simply put, Trump may face too many checks and balances to pursue the more Russia-friendly policy he touted during his campaign and beyond, and, perhaps, he, like his Russian counterpart, did not realize how difficult that would be.

Proposition 1: “President Trump has watered down the sanctions against Russia.”

Evidence for:

  • From what we’ve been able to turn up in our research, the only instance in which the current administration has managed to water down existing Obama-era sanctions is when it lifted restrictions on three companies controlled by Deripaska in exchange for the tycoon’s slashing his stakes in the companies and giving up control over them; Deripaska himself remains subject to U.S. sanctions.
  • In early 2018, instead of imposing at least five of a possible 12 new punitive measures called for by CAATSA, the administration chose not to introduce any new sanctions, saying that existing ones were working and the mere threat of additional measures was a sufficient deterrent. The language in the legislation seems to leave leeway for such a decision (and one list of Russians who could have been sanctioned under CAATSA was branded “a disgrace” for its inaccuracy and superficiality); nonetheless, senior Democratic lawmakers saw the lack of sanctions as “apparent violations … of CAATSA’s mandate and intent.” For more detail on the administration’s battle with Congress over the CAATSA legislation, see the additional points below.

Evidence against:

  • Of the 72 measures against Russia currently listed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in its sanctions tracker, 26 were enacted under Trump. With the exception of the CAATSA and Deripaska-related episodes described above, the Trump-era changes placed restrictions on dozens of new individuals and organizations (including some of Putin’s top officials and closest associates, like Nikolai Patrushev and Igor Rotenburg), augmenting earlier sanctions rather than giving them less bite.

Additional points:

  • There have been some reports of unsuccessful attempts by the Trump administration to lift or weaken restrictions against Russia. In January-February 2017, “top Trump administration officials … tasked State Department staffers with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds and other steps to relieve tensions with Moscow,” according to Yahoo News chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, who spoke to “multiple sources familiar with the events,” including Dan Fried, a veteran State Department official who served as chief U.S. coordinator for sanctions policy until he retired in late February 2017. “‘There was serious consideration by the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions,’” Fried alleged in an interview with Isikoff: “He said in the first few weeks of the administration, he received several ‘panicky’ calls from U.S. government officials who told him they had been directed to develop a sanctions-lifting package.” Both Fried and Tom Malinowski, who had been President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, told Isikoff that these developments prompted them to lobby members of Congress to pass legislation that would help keep the sanctions in place.
  • The CAATSA sanctions created intense tensions between the White House and Congress in the summer of 2017. In June of that year the New York Times reported that the White House was “quietly lobbying House Republicans to weaken a bill overwhelmingly passed by the Senate last week that would slap tough new sanctions on Russia for its meddling in the 2016 election and allow Congress to block any future move by President Trump to lift any penalties against Moscow.” Senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the newspaper they were “not trying to weaken sanctions on Russia, but rather are concerned that the legislation usurps the president’s authority to impose such penalties, and could undercut … the administration’s ability to credibly signal to Moscow that it is willing to ease them in exchange for changes in behavior. The officials said the White House wanted lawmakers to eliminate a congressional review process that would allow the House and the Senate to block the president from lifting sanctions against Russia, or to add a waiver that would permit him to circumvent such an action.” According to a report by Politico the White House efforts “to preserve the president’s power to warm relations with Russia” continued into August until the president ultimately signed the CAATSA legislation. While Trump realized that he lacked the congressional support to veto CAATSA, he said in a statement upon signing the bill into law that it “remains seriously flawed—particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate.”
  • The New York Times pointed out that the Trump administration’s position on CAATSA was “not an unusual one. Presidents, who have authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to unilaterally impose sanctions in response to national threats, often bristle against attempts by Congress to review or block such moves. … President Barack Obama had similar disputes with Congress over Russia sanctions. And Mr. Obama clashed sharply with lawmakers in 2015 over legislation that gave Congress the power to review the nuclear deal with Iran—which was then being negotiated—and block a move by the president to lift sanctions in exchange for Tehran’s compliance.”

Proposition 2: In addition to watering down sanctions, “President Trump has … otherwise appeased Russian interests.”

Evidence for:

  • As noted above, Trump has publicly embraced Putin’s denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and renounced U.S. intelligence findings to the contrary, despite the indictment of Russian officials.
  • Trump has criticized NATO and even threatened to withdraw, thus potentially casting doubt on the durability of the alliance, which Moscow sees as hostile. (That said, Trump’s criticism has centered on what he sees as U.S. interests—in part, reducing spending on international organizations—while Putin’s complaints about the bloc have focused on Russia’s interests.)
  • In December 2018, against the counsel of his military and civilian advisers, Trump ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria—a move that senior national security officials argued would bolster the influence of Russia and Iran there; the timeline of the withdrawal has yet to be determined.

Evidence against:

  • In 2019 the administration slapped sanctions on four Russian nationals and six defense firms over Moscow’s attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait; Trump snubbed Putin after the incident, refusing to meet with him on the sidelines of the G20 in Argentina.
  • The Trump administration is negotiating with Poland to open a new NATO facility and station military hardware there, a move aimed directly against Russia.
  • According to Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), “In just more than two years in office, Trump has requested more than $17 billion for EDI [European Deterrence Initiative] compared with just $5 billion requested in Obama’s final three years in office. As a result, thousands of U.S. troops, along with other NATO allies, have deployed to Poland, the Baltics and Norway to deter further Russian expansion.”
  • In 2018 Trump announced a U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty over Russia’s alleged violations of the agreement; Washington suspended its participation in the agreement in February 2019 and Moscow followed suit immediately thereafter.
  • The Trump administration made its first use of CATSAA in March 2018, imposing sanctions on Russia’s Federal Security Service and military intelligence directorate, known as GRU, as well as six Russian nationals. (Concurrently, using an earlier executive order, the Treasury Department sanctioned the Internet Research Agency, or IRA, its alleged funder Yevgeny Prigozhin, two more of his companies and a dozen more individuals linked to the IRA.)
  • Also in 2018, the administration supplied Ukraine with its first shipments of U.S. “lethal aid,” in the form of Javelin antitank missiles, for the country’s battle with Russia-backed separatists—something the Obama administration had refused to do.
  • Trump has been pushing hard to prevent the completion of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, reportedly preparing sanctions against the project via a CAATSA amendment; at the Helsinki summit he openly said energy supplies to Europe would be an area of competition with Russia, reiterating less explicit comments to that effect made in July 2017.
  • Trump reportedly approved U.S. Cyber Command’s operation to block internet access to the Russian Internet Research Agency during congressional mid-term elections, in what unnamed sources called the first offensive cyber-campaign against Russia designed to thwart attempts to interfere with a U.S. election.
  • In 2018, on Trump’s watch, the U.S. military killed an unspecified number of Russian mercenaries—perhaps “a couple of hundred,” according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who tried to stage an offensive against U.S.-backed forces in Syria.
  • The Trump administration also imposed sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of the Skripals in 2018, expelling 60 diplomats (though Trump reportedly wanted to expel far fewer) and shuttering the Russian Consulate in Seattle, leaving Moscow with no diplomatic presence on the West Coast for the first time in nearly 50 years. The administration also imposed a ban on arms sales, arms-sales financing, U.S. government credit or other financial assistance, exports of national-security-sensitive goods and most foreign assistance to Russia. It is currently readying another round of sanctions related to the poisoning.
  • In 2018 Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, which Russia values and had worked hard to negotiate. The six-country agreement had been a rare success in U.S.-Russian cooperation amid extremely tense bilateral relations.
  • On Feb. 15, 2018, the White House accused “the Russian military” of launching the devastating June 2017 cyberattack known as NotPetya, which caused billions of dollars in damage worldwide.
  • Trump complained in early 2018 that Russia was helping North Korea evade international sanctions: “Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” he told Reuters. “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.” (Several of the Russia-related sanctions imposed under Trump target activity related to North Korea.)
  • In 2017 the U.S. closed the Russian consulate in San Francisco.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.