Yesterday Twitter erupted briefly with news that the Trump administration was allegedly defying the will of the people by refusing to impose sanctions that both houses of Congress passed overwhelmingly last July. The reason? The administration informed Congress Monday that it was waiving sanctions for now on buyers of Russian arms. The context, however, matters, and the administration’s actions were, I believe, entirely prudent. Here’s what happened and why.
The law at issue (you can read the text here) gave the president 180 days to impose sanctions on a person who knowingly, on or after the date of the law, “engage[d] in a significant transaction with a person that is part of, or operates for or on behalf of, the defense or intelligence sectors of the Government of the Russian Federation.” Trump, however, had the statutory discretion to waive imposition of the sanctions if, among other things, he determined that a waiver “is in the vital national security interests of the United States” or if a person is “substantially reducing” the number of significant relevant transactions with Russia.
Moreover, it’s important to understand that there are a number of U.S. allies, like India, who’ve purchased Russian arms or are considering future defense deals. For example, India has long considered a substantial purchase of Russia’s still-in-development fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57. If, in fact, the new sanctions regime is deterring these deals (we don’t yet have details), then the United States has an incentive not to sanction friends who may well be in the process of voluntary compliance.
Indeed, a state department spokesperson said as much yesterday:
Given the long time frames generally associated with major defense deals, the results of this effort are only beginning to become apparent. From that perspective, if the law is working, sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent.”
It’s also important to note that at the same time that the administration waived sanctions on arms buyers, it complied with a separate requirement to identify “Senior foreign political figures and oligarchs in the Russian Federation” — an action that angered Vladimir Putin:
This is definitely an unfriendly act,” President Vladimir V. Putin said when asked about the Treasury Department list during a campaign event in advance of Russia’s own presidential election in March. “It is complicating Russian-American relations, where the situation is already hard, and is definitely harming international relations in general.”
Mr. Putin said Moscow had pondered virtually breaking ties with Washington over what is known in Russia as the “Kremlin report,” but decided against it. “We were prepared to undertake retaliatory steps, and quite serious ones too, which would cut our relations to zero,” he said. “But we will refrain from such steps for the time being.”
Of course one can’t divorce the administration’s actions from the larger context of Trump’s history of pro-Putin statements and the atmosphere of distrust flowing from ongoing Russian election meddling and the ongoing Mueller probe. But we also have to recall that the Trump administration decided to send lethal aid to Ukraine, agreed to provide Patriot missiles to Poland, imposed its own sanctions against Russians and struck Russia ally Syria after Assad’s use of chemical weapons. These are not the actions of an administration that’s “soft” on Russia.
With virtually any other administration yesterday’s report would barely cause a ripple of controversy. But this isn’t any other administration. For now, however, I’m with Tennessee Republican Bob Corker (hardly a Trump apologist). “On the whole,” he said, “it is clear the administration is working in good faith.” That seems to be true, but Congress must remain vigilant. Prudence today is no guarantee of prudence tomorrow.