MOSCOW – Was the warning shot for Cold War Two just fired?
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Russia took no time on Wednesday delivering its response to the near unanimous decision by the U.S. House of Representatives to impose a fresh round of sweeping sanctions on its country, for possible meddling in the U.S. presidential elections.
Retaliation was almost certain, warned Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, without going into details, though it is widely expected that dozens of U.S. diplomats will be expelled. Ryabkov said the vote took the erstwhile Cold War foes into “uncharted waters.”
For the sanctions to go ahead, the bill must now be passed by Senate and given the final sign-off by President Donald Trump. Iran and North Korea join Russia on the bill’s list. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe over Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea, have already taken their toll on Russia – though this is denied at the official level – and more sanctions could plunge the battered economy back into recession.
“This is a new stage of confrontation,” said Alexey Pushkov, who heads the international affairs committee in Russian parliament. “If Trump signs, it will confirm that he’s a hostage of anti-Russian hysteria,” he wrote on Twitter. His sentiment echoed that of Ryabkov, who described the sanctions bill as the “brainchild” of Congressmen who are scared by Russia and out to get Trump.
Their comments suggest that Moscow – namely, President Vladimir Putin – is still keen to court Trump the individual, and not the government he heads. By absolving the American president of any blame in hurting Russia – even if he does rubber-stamp the sanctions bill – Moscow seeks to paint a man surrounded by Russophobes. The term ‘Russophobia’ has become highly sensationalised in Russia in recent years, especially in recent months, where it is used as catch-all to describe anyone who is not on the Kremlin’s side.
Some went as far as to suggest that Trump will not sign the bill. On a popular state-run radio show on Wednesday, the move by the House (which saw a vote of 419 to 3) was portrayed as being part of a previously worked-out plan, one that could result in a pocket veto. This would mean the bill would go to congress, but when it adjourns for the approaching summer recess, Trump does not need to take any action for it to be vetoed.
“We are dealing with extremely cunning people here,” Vladimir Vasiliev, chief researcher at the government-linked Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies in Moscow, told Vesti FM. “They (Congress and Trump) will try make it look like it happened by chance,” he said.
The new sanctions come just weeks after Trump and Putin met for the first time ever, at the G20 summit in Hamburg. The two leaders spoke for more than two hours behind closed doors, instead of the planned thirty minutes, bolstering hopes on both sides that some headway can be made in bettering relations. They spoke again at a dinner for G20 spouses and partners, this time with only one other person present, a Russian translator, enraging American officials who now only have Trump’s word for what was discussed. Trump later tweeted that sanctions were not raised with his Russian counterpart.
But leniency for Trump will not stop the Kremlin playing tit-for-tat diplomacy. The Foreign Ministry earlier this month said “the clock was ticking” on its request to Washington to reverse President Barack Obama’s December decision to expel 35 Russian diplomats and block access to Russian diplomatic sites in the U.S. Those moves were in response to what Washington said was Russia’s hacking of Democratic National Committee emails. The Foreign Ministry also said that it planned to expel more than 35 U.S. diplomats, in order to make the sizes of the countries’ embassies in Washington and Moscow more comparable.
Moscow has always flatly denied meddling in the election in any way.
The two red-bricked mansions in New York state and Maryland are regularly featured on Russian state TV, their plush splendour and sprawling woods presented as wonderful retreats which were savagely snatched away from them.
When the Russian diplomats were expelled at the end of last year, the Foreign Ministry and Russian state networks went to great lengths to describe the unjustness and cruelty of the expulsion, saying it caused pregnant women undue stress and children needed to be pulled out of school mid-year.
In December, the Foreign Ministry wanted to expel 35 U.S. diplomats in turn, but President Vladimir Putin, at the very last minute, chose not to, instead inviting the children of American diplomats to enjoy the lavishly decorated Christmas tree by the Kremlin. The shock move – which may have been coordinated with the Foreign Ministry – was widely viewed as a conciliatory message to the incoming administration of President Donald Trump.
And, despite this latest round of sanctions, this seeming clemency for Trump – Russia’s willingness to punish his government but not the man in charge – could be a sign that the Kremlin is getting almost desperate for the situation to not further deteriorate. Though the Kremlin would be hard pressed to admit it, U.S. economic sanctions have been very painful for Russia. The economy may have just inched its way out of a two-year recession, but the continued low oil price, its key export, combined with sanctions – the International Monetary Fund called this the “dual shocks” – has had a profound and lasting effect.
Putin still wants a personal relationship with Trump, but time could be running out. The reality of the U.S. government structure – one that, at present, is almost entirely on board with new sanctions against Russia – is unnerving the Kremlin. Trump is not as omnipotent as the Russians would like him to be, and learning this could be a dangerous game for the Kremlin, as well as for the rest of the world.