In the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the strategy for dealing with Russia relied on friendly overtures to dial down the hostility. The White House has apparently concluded from Vladimir Putin’s continued aggressions that they need a new strategy. According to the Washington Post, it amounts to hit ’em where it hurts — in the pocketbook:
The United States is expected to impose additional sanctions against Russia by Friday, according to U.S. officials.
The sanctions are economic and designed to target oligarchs with ties to President Vladimir Putin, the officials said. The final number of Russians facing punitive action remains fluid, the U.S. officials said, but is expected to include at least a half-dozen people under sanction powers given to the president by Congress. …
The United States is expected to target individuals on a list of influential Russian political and business leaders that the Treasury Department released in January, officials said.
The United States could also impose sanctions based on powers granted by Congress to target anyone conducting significant business with Russian intelligence and defense sectors.
The genius of liberal democratic republics is that they eventually get around to the correct choice … after having exhausted all others first. That’s not just a criticism of Trump, but of both his immediate predecessors as well. George W. Bush thought he could deal with Putin until the last year of his two-term presidency despite clear indications of Putin’s dreams of imperialism. Bush only truly woke to the danger when Putin invaded Georgia in the summer of 2008 and occupied two provinces, which they control to this day.
Likewise, Barack Obama started off his presidency by sending Hillary Clinton to give a “reset button” to Sergei Lavrov, blaming Bush for bad relations between Washington and Moscow. Obama then pandered continuously to Putin in order to get a nuclear-arms reduction deal that never materialized — all but ignoring Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and then caving to Putin on Syria. Obama openly ridiculed Mitt Romney’s position that Russia was the main geopolitical foe of the US, and Democrats accused Republicans of Cold War nostalgia. Only when Putin tried to disrupt the 2016 elections did Obama — and Democrats — suddenly get Russian fever.
This move makes a lot more sense than broader economic sanctions against the Russian people, and more than reflexive diplomatic expulsions, too. Putin relies on the political support of the oligarchs to keep power, and the oligarchs need free access to the security of Western banking and trade institutions to keep their fortunes. This is one area where the battlefield is highly asymmetrical in our favor, and it’s the pressure point we should have been using all along. Combined with a new aggressive posture in cyberwarfare, the US is in position to force Putin to pay a price for his operations against the West and his imperialist aspirations.
Presumably, the Trump administration will start with a small group and leave themselves room to ratchet up the pressure. When Putin starts costing the oligarchs access to their fortunes, the political situation in Moscow may begin to shift — and perhaps that will allow for a real election to take place in the future.