It’s hard to imagine that an American president would actually want to disrupt a decades old American alliance with a democratic and united Europe, while making deals with an anti-American dictator in Russia. So we cling to any evidence to the contrary. Here are two developments that are giving us hope:
First, the administration is sending Vice President Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis to Munich and Brussels to reassure worried allies. The bar is so low, it won’t be hard to clear, if the administration’s sane and competent emissaries just say: “We are committed to NATO. We’ll defend our allies against aggression. We want everyone to pay their share, but we appreciate our allies’ sacrifices. We believe in European unity, and democratic values. We’ll try to cooperate with Russia but we’re not naïve.” It’s sad that these never before questioned pillars of American policy need to be reaffirmed, or that doing so will now seem like a breakthrough. But the words still need to be spoken.
Second, it is looking less likely that there will be a Molotov-Ribbentrop style pact between Trump and Putin to trade sanctions against Russia for a joint fight against the Islamic State. Many people have pointed out what a strategic and moral calamity such a deal would be. It would legitimize great power spheres of influence, encourage further aggression by Russia and others, while recognizing Putin’s false claim to be a defender of Western civilization against terrorism. It would, in other words, give Putin what he wants in exchange for giving Putin what he wants.
What is more important, from a political standpoint, is that Republicans in the Congress, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have said they would block any lifting of sanctions until Russia ends its interference in Ukraine. General Michael Flynn’s ouster from his position as national security advisor for having improperly discussed the possibility of a deal with the Russians will also make it harder for President Trump to pursue one.
But before we let ourselves rest assured, we should remember that Trump could still give Putin virtually everything he wants without taking any formal steps to lift sanctions. Here is how he could do it:
1. Make no effort to enforce sanctions. Sanctions are not self-executing. Over time, those targeted learn how to evade them, by disguising their assets, adopting new identities, and finding new agents to carry out sanctioned activities. It takes constant effort to keep up.
The Obama administration, in addition to regularly expanding the scope of the Russia sanctions, issued four separate “maintenance packages,” aimed at the downstream assets of the main sanctions targets, and the agents and cronies who help them hide their money. The State and Treasury Departments routinely reached out to banks and companies to warn them against questionable activities that could benefit a sanctioned Russian entity. When sanctions forced U.S. businesses to withdraw from deals in Russia, the Obama administration also pressed other countries, like Japan and South Korea, not to allow their companies to fill the void. The Trump White House could convey to State and Treasury that these efforts are no longer a priority, and endlessly delay a fifth sanctions maintenance package (which normally would come in the next few months). Sanctions would remain on the books, but lose their bite.
2. Make no effort to keep Europe united behind sanctions. Rallying the European Union against Russian aggression in Ukraine was no small feat, given the requirement that all 28 member states agree, and Russia’s constant efforts to compromise the EU’s weakest links. President Obama lobbied repeatedly for sanctions to be renewed at G-7 summits and in meetings and phone calls with fellow leaders. The State Department’s Toria Nuland and Dan Fried, and the Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, made dozens of trips to Europe to shore up the consensus. If the Trump administration does not resume these efforts (which are now frozen as agencies await new leadership and guidance), even as the United Kingdom focuses on leaving rather than leading the EU, and populist pro-Russian parties reinforced by Trump’s cyber army try to weaken the French and German governments, European support for sanctions could crumble before the next renewal date in July.
And if Germany and France survive the onslaught, and seek a renewal of the EU’s strong stand on Russia, Trump and Steve Bannon could quietly convey to their European friends in the Alt-Right International, like Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary, that the United States would be happy to see them veto a EU consensus to maintain sanctions. The weak links in the EU, including Hungary, Slovakia, and Greece, have not challenged that consensus, in part because the United States has joined Germany, France and the UK in urging them not to. If the White House starts telling them that the U.S. position has changed (whatever Trump’s cabinet officials may say in public speeches), that could tip the balance.
3. Collaborate in Syria anyway, and make clear that countering “radical Islam” trumps defense of other values. Trump doesn’t need a formal deal with Putin to start sharing targeting intelligence in Syria with the Russians. And while Obama veterans wonder whether he’ll go with the Turks or the Kurds in pushing the Islamic State out of Raqqa, he could choose a third option: working with the Russians to help the Assad regime advance on Islamic State territory (or at least handing them the keys to Raqqa after a Kurdish force takes it).
Meanwhile, Trump could do what Putin may want most of all: stop the maddening American habit of insisting that human rights are a universal norm; back off our irritating campaign against corruption and money laundering; let countries like Ukraine sink or swim on their own; and keep repeating the central tenet of Moscow’s propaganda, that Western democracies are no better than Russia and have no right to criticize anyone. If Trump keeps saying that America’s elections are rigged, that our cities are a disaster, that our journalists are dishonest, that we kill our enemies just as Russia does, Russia Today could declare mission accomplished. And Putin could give its $300 million annual subsidy to his favorite charity — like, say, the Assad regime, or a bridge to Crimea.
What can be done to keep the administration from these sins of commission, and omission? There are several steps a vigilant Congress could take. Most important, it could enact into law the four executive orders Obama issued sanctioning Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. For now, McConnell has told Republican Senators backing such legislation that he won’t let it move if Trump does not actually try to lift sanctions. But for the reasons discussed above, State and Treasury, as well as our European allies, need clear direction that sanctions will stand absent a change in Russian behavior, and that they must be enforced.
Congress should also support an independent investigation into the Trump team’s dealings with Russia, to ensure that any malign influence is ruled out. It should ensure that the State Department spends the money it was given last year to counter Russian disinformation in eastern Europe, and protect funding to support civil society activists and independent media in Russia’s neighborhood. It should hold Secretary of State Tillerson to his promise to keep enforcing human rights related sanctions under the Magnitsky law. On Syria, it should include in any sanctions bill new penalties on those responsible (Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah, and Syrian officials) for committing war crimes, and prohibit sharing military intelligence or other collaboration with Russian units that have bombed civilians.
American policy should advance American ideals and interests. Let’s hope administration officials will say that in Europe this week. But let’s remember that what they do, and fail to do, matters more than their words, and act accordingly.
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