Report

Trump’s Renewed Russia Sanctions Look A Lot Like Obama’s

New measures target Russian officials and a martial arts training firm linked to a pro-Putin biker gang.

trump russia

The Trump administration slapped additional sanctions on dozens of individuals and companies tied to Russia’s slow-burning proxy war in Ukraine on Tuesday. The move could be a relief to many who worried Trump would renege on U.S. commitments to Europe to repairs ties with Russia.

The sanctions target 38 new individuals and organizations U.S. officials say are responsible for tightening the Kremlin’s grip over eastern Ukraine as Washington and its European allies push for a diplomatic solution to the country’s three year-long conflict. They’re designed to “maintain pressure on Russia to work toward a diplomatic solution,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement on Tuesday.

The move is conspicuous for an administration that has bucked international norms. U.S. allies and outgoing U.S. officials feared for months Trump would upend traditional commitments to Europe and sell Ukraine down the river for a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he lavished with praised during the U.S. presidential campaign. But the new sanctions list could dispel some of those fears by falling in line with former President Barack Obama’s approach to Russia.

“The Trump administration deserves some credit both for the timing and for the substance of these sanctions,” said Daniel Fried, America’s longest-serving diplomat and State Department coordinator for sanctions policy up until his retirement several months ago. “This is not a softball list. Nobody tried to water it down. There’s too much good stuff in here.”

“It looks like a list that would have come out under the last administration,” said Sean Kane, an international trade and sanctions expert at Hughes Hubbard & Reed law firm.

And the timing couldn’t be better. For starters, they’re in the wake of the European Union’s new agreement to extend sanctions against Russia for another year, signaling transatlantic solidarity — something that appears to be a rare commodity in the Trump era.

The new measures also come a week after the Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass another round of sanctions against Russia, a strong check against what was widely seen as Trump’s plans to soften Washington’s stance toward the Kremlin. They also come on the same day Russia is trying to price its new bond issuance, which could scuttle Moscow’s plans to breath new life into its anemic economy.

As diplomatic icing on the cake, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Washington Tuesday on the heels of the announcement, signaling the Trump administration’s willingness to back Kiev after growing fears it’d sell out the government there for some form of grand bargain with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The timing with Poroshenko’s visit is likely “happy coincidence,” said Kane, as Treasury can’t cobble together these types of lists overnight; they take months to prepare.

The sanctions target key “government” officials in the Kremlin-backed breakaway regions of Ukraine and financial institutions investing in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Russia illegally seized in 2014. The list includes Sergey Nazarov, the deputy chief of Russia’s economic development ministry, who is allegedly involved in bankrolling and supplying Russian-backed militias in eastern Ukraine; “Wolf” Holding of Security Structures, an organization that provides martial arts and tactical military training to pro-Kremlin fighters in eastern Ukraine and affiliated with an infamous pro-Putin biker gang known as the “Night Wolves”; and IFD Kapital, a multibillion-dollar private equity firm that invested in hotel complexes in Crimea.

Trump signaled a willingness to repair ties with Russia when he came into office, a bid made all the more difficult by the Russia-related scandals that continue to dog his White House.

“Our relationship is at the lowest level it’s been at since the Cold War and it’s spiraling down,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Senate in a hearing last week. “The two greatest nuclear powers in the world cannot have this kind of a relationship. We have to stabilize it and we have to start finding a way back.”

But while the administration mulls that debate, the Treasury Department signaled Tuesday it would continue with Obama-era business as usual unless otherwise directed.

“Today’s action demonstrates that, under Trump, Treasury will continue to uphold this norm,” said Edward Fishman, a former State Department official who helped craft U.S. sanctions on Russia under former President Barack Obama’s administration. “It’s a good sign that Russia sanctions won’t erode by dint of neglect during the Trump administration,” he said.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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