The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No, Trump has not been ‘tough’ on Russia

Then-President-elect Donald Trump and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani pose for photographs as Giuliani arrives at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J., on Nov. 20, 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Edward Fishman served as a member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff during the Obama administration and is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. James Lamond is a fellow at the Center for American Progress. Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served in the State Department from 2011 to 2017.

Last month, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against four Kremlin-linked figures for their efforts to interfere in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The measures were met with acclaim as a long-awaited response to Russia’s interventions in American democracy.

In reality, though, these measures are little more than a pinprick — the latest episode in a long history of efforts by the Trump administration to appear tough on Russia while actually signaling to the Kremlin that U.S. elections remain open to interference. The simple fact is that even harsh-looking sanctions have little impact when there’s zero political will to enforce them.

The Treasury Department’s actions imposed asset freezes on Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian politician and alleged Kremlin agent, and three mid-level bureaucrats at a Russian troll farm. None of these individuals, however, are likely to own significant financial holdings in the West, so the sanctions will have minimal impact on their lives. Even if they do, the measures will certainly not affect the Kremlin’s decision-making.

Derkach’s inclusion was somewhat surprising, as Derkach met with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, at least three times and has been at the center of a disinformation campaign perpetuated by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). But Derkach, who attended KGB training school, has led interference efforts so blatant that the administration had little choice. Blocking sanctions against Derkach could have caused political blowback, while letting them proceed enables the Trump administration to claim to be “tough” on Russia.

We shouldn’t be fooled. From its start, the Trump administration has systematically undermined U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Immediately upon entering the White House, Trump tried to lift Obama-era sanctions and return diplomatic compounds seized by the United States due to interference in the 2016 election. Months later, Congress drew up a bill to strengthen Russia sanctions and prevent Trump from lifting them. The administration lobbied hard against the legislation. When it passed with a veto-proof majority, Trump issued a statement expressing displeasure — and signaling that enforcement would be lax.

His administration has done exactly that. It delayed implementing the law and missed key deadlines, grudgingly conceding only after intervention by congressional leaders. Nervous tycoons scrambled to hire Washington lobbyists to keep themselves off a blacklist mandated by the law. But the Trump team made a mockery of the effort by merely copying and pasting from a Forbes list of Russian billionaires. That reassured the Kremlin that the sanctions would never be used as intended.

Trump’s most egregious act of sanctions malfeasance, however, came in April 2018. That was when the Treasury Department — acting with support from then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster, on his way out of the White House — imposed the first consequential Russia sanctions of the Trump years, targeting the oligarch Oleg Deripaska and his aluminum company, Rusal. The impact was swift: Rusal’s shares nosedived by more than 50 percent.

Instead of using this leverage to extract concessions from Moscow, the Trump administration immediately defanged the sanctions and eventually expunged Rusal from the sanctions list. To make matters worse, the Trump administration cut a deal with Deripaska, whom the Senate Intelligence Committee described as a “proxy for the Russian state and intelligence services,” allowing him to maintain control of his businesses through allies. This episode sent an unambiguous message to both Moscow and the private sector: The Trump administration had no stomach for tough sanctions against Russia.

Meanwhile, the administration dragged its feet on imposing consequences for the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. It delayed chemical weapons sanctions required by law, only moving forward after formal requests and demands from bipartisan congressional leaders. Unsurprisingly, when the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was recently poisoned with a similar agent, the Trump administration said — and did — nothing.

Ahead of the 2018 midterms, bipartisan legislation to deter Moscow from interfering in future U.S. elections gained momentum in the Senate. Trump cut it off at the pass, signing an executive order mimicking its language but lacking the critical piece: automatic sanctions against Russian banks and energy companies if the Kremlin’s attacks on American democracy persisted. It was this executive order that the Treasury Department used in September.

Trump’s policy on Russia sanctions has been an elaborate ruse, designed to project toughness while actually doing little to follow through. The reality is that Trump, far from taking a tough line, has proactively undermined sanctions from Day One of his term in the White House.

The results are clear. As Trump’s own FBI director recently emphasized, Russia is continuing to interfere in our politics today. That’s not because the sanctions have failed to achieve their purpose. It’s because Trump never intended them to work in the first place.

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