On August 2nd, US President Donald Trump reluctantly signed tough new sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea. He had little choice since they passed both houses of the US Congress unanimously; 419 to 3 in the House of Representatives and 98 to 2 in the Senate, enabling them to block any presidential veto if Trump had decided not to sign them into law.
These sanctions are significant for four reasons. Firstly, they show the depth of distrust within the Republican Party (GOP) towards their own president. Republican representatives and senators voted unanimously for the sanctions that their president can no longer annul. Trump has bedevilled the US political elite with his inability to criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin while at the same time hurling insults at his allies – NATO and the EU. US Congressmen must be left wondering why Trump is so reluctant to criticise Putin even after Russia brazenly intervened in the American democratic process, according to US intelligence.
Secondly, the sanctions show to what degree Russia and Ukraine were both wrong about Trump’s election leading to a major reset of US-Russian relations. At the end of last year, Russians were uncorking their champagne bottles and Ukrainians were drowning their sorrows after Trump’s election. Russia had backed Trump for three reasons. Putin had a visceral hatred for Hillary Clinton because of her backing of anti-Putin protest, he expected Trump to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Russia along the lines of the 1945 Yalta Agreement that had assigned Eastern Europe to the Soviet empire and believed Trump would drop sanctions. The “grand bargain” would recognise Russia as an equal great power rather than the regional one that former President Barack Obama had described Russia as. A “grand bargain” would also have consigned the territory of the former USSR (and perhaps parts of Central Europe) to Russia’s “zone of privileged interests” in Dmitry Medvedev’s words.
With the new tough sanctions, it will be Ukrainians and others who will be celebrating and Russians drowning their sorrows. The sanctions are long overdue in placing Russia, which has conducted hybrid war in eastern Ukraine and a terrorist campaign across Ukraine and is allegedly arming the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the same category as “terrorist states” like Iran and North Korea.
Thirdly, the new sanctions are a reflection of the deep-seated differences that will prevent real co-operation – which had already failed under President George W. Bush and Obama – between Russia and the US and European allies. The US and Russia do not see eye to eye on Syria, Iran, North Korea, Ukraine and a host of other questions. In 2016, NATO, EU members and western intelligence agencies concluded that Russia represents a serious threat to their national security. This was long overdue as Putin had turned to the nationalist right as early as 2005-2007 and even further to the extreme nationalist right after the 2011-2012 Moscow protests.
Putin’s information, cyber and hybrid warfare was tested against Russia’s neighbours before these tactics were turned against Europe and the US. Russia massively intervened in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections and Estonia suffered a huge cyber-attack in April 2007. Russian assassination attempts were made against Ukrainian opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko and FSB defector Alexander Litvnenko in 2004 and 2006 respectively. The West’s weak response to Russia after the August 2008 invasion of Georgia gave Putin the impression he could get away with annexing Crimea without the threat of sanctions.
Importantly, and fourthly, Putin again shot himself in the foot by his brazen information, cyber and hybrid warfare against the US and Europe. As true inheritors of their Chekist and KGB past, Putin’s militocratic regime cannot survive without domestic and external enemies. Contemporary Russian disinformation strategies are drawn from Soviet active measures analysed in a 1981 US State Department briefing. Today, Russia has greater active measure capabilities because of the internet, social media and 24-hour TV. Putin has believed he has been at war with the West since the Rose and Orange revolutions which would have been perfectly clear to western policymakers if they had bothered to read Putin’s February 2007 speech to the Munich security conference.
Clear evidence indicates that Russia intervened in the Brexit referendum on EU membership and the referendum for Scottish independence; the French and upcoming German elections, the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and the US presidential election. Moscow has funded and supported anti-EU populist nationalist, neo-fascist and extreme leftist parties and hosted them at congresses. Russia has backed violent coup attempts in Montenegro and elsewhere. Russia’s information warfare has been so full of lies, fake news and deception, which French President Emmanuel Macron condemned at a joint press conference with Putin, that even the usually diplomatic EU was forced to launch a weekly Disinformation Review in 2016. Extremist pro-Russian nationalist groups in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have been financed by Moscow.
Russia’s information warfare and propaganda transformed anti-Maidan protests in the Donbas and Crimea into armed insurrections that have led to tens of thousands of deaths, destruction of property and nearly two million IDP’s (Internally Displaced Persons) and refugees. Propaganda kills and Russian information warfare drawing on the tradition of Soviet tirades against Ukrainian ‘fascists’ and ‘Western hirelings and ‘agents’ fired up hatred and led to widespread human rights abuses.
Putin’s intervention in the US election has massively rebounded. At a time of continued low energy prices, tough new sanctions will severely damage the Russian economy ahead of Putin’s re-election next year. While Putin overplayed his hand in seeking to get Trump elected, any reality check would have told us a US-Russian reset was always fake news.
Be careful what you wish for. Putin wished for Trump to end sanctions and instead Russia is being hit by tougher ones. In essence, Putin scored a major home goal for Mother Russia.
Taras Kuzio is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC and author of the recently published book Putin’s War against Ukraine. Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime.