President Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested he would consider removing U.S. sanctions on Russia in order to improve ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department made a small tweak to the sanctions currently in place, issuing a license permitting U.S. firms to work with the Russian Federal Security Service to restart sales of encryption technology to Russia. In the scheme of U.S. sanctions, the change was small, but hopefully not the beginning of a much larger unraveling. The Trump administration would risk U.S. credibility and crucial alliances with security partners if it were to lift the powerful economic sanctions on Russia that target its territorial aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine without Russia first fulfilling Minsk deal, a protocol meant to pave the way towards peace.
As a former senior official at the Treasury Department, the agency that crafts and enforces sanctions, I know firsthand how powerful sanctions can be as a national security tool. I’m also keenly aware of how damaging a change in course on sanctions — out of step with close international allies or without a strong basis of support from Congress — could be to U.S. foreign policy. If Trump were to enact such a change, he would make any future U.S. sanctions less credible, available, and powerful.
Rumors flew last week that the White House was preparing an executive order to lift sanctions on Russia. A call over the weekend between Trump and Putin that covered “restoration of mutually beneficial economic ties” may support this prospect.
If Trump were to press ahead with a plan to unilaterally cancel sanctions, he would collapse the carefully coordinated transatlantic foreign policy stance on Russia that so many of my colleagues at the Treasury and State Departments built. He would also end the powerful economic leverage that joint U.S.-EU sanctions constitute. Plus, he would make the United States look weaker on sanctions than Europe does, upending conventional wisdom.
For the business community, Trump stands to open a new chapter of legal liability for companies still bound by European sanctions and wondering if the pendulum will eventually swing the other way.
European officials tell me (and everyone else concerned with European unity, security, and the transatlantic relationship) that they would scramble to stay on the side of the United States, yet maintain a tough stance toward Moscow. The rift between British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Russia policy would find itself in the spotlight. European agreement on the sanctions would probably collapse. And this disarray and the cleavage in transatlantic ties would work out very well for Putin.
Putin would not be the only U.S. competitor to benefit from the breakdown of the transatlantic security relationship, the bedrock of U.S. national security since World War II. Leaders of proliferation networks, terrorist organizations, and organized criminal groups might feel emboldened by the reduced U.S.-EU ability to collaborate in deterring serious security threats. I expect that this would make it more difficult to use sanctions to effectively expose, condemn, and hinder these threats.
I’m also worried about the White House would send a message that sanctions are arbitrary if Trump were to pull back Russia sanctions unilaterally, with nothing in exchange. The United States’ wary allies might be less inclined to partner with the United States on sanctions in the future.
What’s more, those targeted by sanctions would be less likely to see sanctions as serious and would seek to circumvent them rather than pursue constructive behavior changes. Ultimately, these responses would undermine the ability of Trump, and his successors, to use sanctions as a tool of statecraft.
The greatest national security tests Trump will face are yet to come. Whether from Iran, North Korea, Russia, or the Islamic State, economic sanctions will likely be part of an appropriate policy response. But Trump may limit his ability to use sanctions if he erodes his credibility and the powerful transatlantic security alliances. A misstep on the U.S. relationship with Russia could do just that.
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