Trump’s Attitude Toward Russia Sanctions Makes a Mockery of the United States
The question now is whether Congress will do anything about it.
The Trump administration shocked Washington when it refused to implement new, legally mandated sanctions against Russia in January. The White House claimed there was no need for new sanctions, because the law itself was already deterring those considering doing business with Russia. Yet, since then, not only did a U.S. grand jury indict 13 Russians for fraud and other charges, but the U.S. intelligence community unanimously told Congress that Russia hasn’t stopped interfering in American democracy. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats even testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the “United States is under attack.” Despite this, the Trump administration continues to stick to its claim that the situation requires no additional sanctions. This is worse than doing nothing.
Deterrence only works if it is credible: The actor threatening retaliation has to be seen as willing to carry it out. By refusing to implement Russia sanctions mandated by Congress despite tremendous political pressure to do so, the administration has sent a clear message: Don’t worry about sanctions, the United States won’t follow through.
The White House has somehow turned lemonade into lemons — taking the one strong piece of legislation intended to both punish Russia for its unprecedented attack on U.S. democracy and deter it from striking again, and instead giving the world a green light to do business with those responsible for attacking the United States. If the Trump administration was trying to purposefully undermine the United States’ credibility, it could not have done a better job.
To date, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which passed Congress with near-unanimous, bipartisan support last summer, remains the only significant U.S. response to Russia’s unprecedented attack on the United States.
The administration’s willingness to implement the sanctions has long been in doubt. From the very beginning of the Trump administration, it sought to remove sanctions on Russia. When Congress first took up the legislation, the administration said new sanctions were unnecessary and lobbied against the bill. When its passage looked inevitable, the administration pushed to water it down. And when Congress passed the sanctions nearly unanimously, the president grudgingly signed the bill into law, letting the world know he thought it was “seriously flawed.” Then, in October, the administration missed an initial implementation deadline.
The Trump administration therefore began the sanctions implementation process with no credibility, and with congressional oversight as the only hope for salvaging trust. Unfortunately, by making a mockery of the process, the administration essentially destroyed that hope.
First, the administration did not even acknowledge what the sanctions are for: Russia’s interference in U.S. democracy. The White House’s statement announcing its decision did not make reference to Russia’s interference in the United States, citing only Russia’s “aggression in Ukraine, interference in other nations’ domestic affairs and abuses of human rights.” Ignoring this is a flagrant disregard for the clearly outlined intention of the legislation.
Second, the administration did not impose a single sanction. Law required the government to meet a deadline on Jan. 31 imposing sanctions related to the Russian defense and intelligence sectors. Rather than comply, the State Department decided not to impose any, instead releasing a statement saying that sanctions “will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent.”
To be clear, implementing sanctions, particularly on defense-related sectors, is a complicated and delicate matter, and the agencies responsible should be granted a degree of flexibility. For example, the legislation enables the United States to sanction “persons” doing business with the Russian defense industry, which would include Eastern European NATO members. While no one expects the U.S. government to levy sanctions against the defense officials of NATO allies, the administration should be ratcheting up the pressure to deter countries, including allies, from considering buying Russian equipment.
But none of this appears to have happened. In fact, since the sanctions have gone into place, a series of large agreements to purchase Russian weapons — including by U.S. allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — have taken place. Clearly they are not deterred.
Third, the Trump administration made a mockery of an important report on Russian oligarchs — either intentionally or out of sheer incompetence. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act requires the administration to deliver a report mapping out the network of Russian oligarchs and regime insiders, collectively known as the “Kremlin list,” specifically identifying people by “their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth.” Those placed on this list could face potential sanctions, having their visas banned, and assets frozen.
But what the Trump administration delivered was laughable. Despite serious work by career officials to develop a list as required, the administration instead released an all-inclusive list that appears, quite literally, to be a copy-and-paste job from the Forbes ranking of the wealthiest Russians and Russian government websites. This makes the list pointless: If everybody is on the list, then in effect, nobody is on it. What’s worse is that someone high up in the government reportedly replaced the list at the last minute.
Before the deadline, Russia’s oligarchs were aflutter with apprehension, hiring lobbyists, hiding assets, conducting private diplomacy, and even stress-testing their businesses as they braced for impact. After its release, they met it with laughter and mockery. It all seemed to be a big joke. No oligarchs could now seriously think this administration will sanction them.
Lastly, the Trump administration found a way to turn a report designed to deter Russia from interfering in elections into a way to put Russia at ease. Congress required the administration to assess the effects of expanding sanctions to Russian sovereign debt and derivatives. This was a new and potentially very powerful tool, which some financial analysts have even referred to as the “nuclear option.” But the report the administration released warned that Russia’s sovereign debt market was too dangerous to sanction without risking “negative spillover effects into global financial markets and businesses.” After its release, the Russian stock market rallied, as investors (rightly) interpreted the report as an indicator that the administration won’t expand sanctions.
With its failure to implement this important legislation, the Trump administration in one fell swoop made a mockery of the U.S. Congress and America’s standing overseas, while delivering a huge gift to the Kremlin.
The question now is whether Congress will do anything about it.
Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served in the State Department from 2011 to 2017, including as a member of the policy planning staff and as a senior advisor to the undersecretary of arms control and international security.