After Donald Trump’s debacle in Helsinki, I predicted that the deluge of partisan criticism would force the president to show his toughness on Russia in policy, if not in rhetoric. Today, that shoe dropped in the form of tough new sanctions over the use of chemical weapons in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal. The Trump administration gave Vladimir Putin 90 days to agree to stop using Novichok and other weapons and open up for inspections to verify compliance with international treaties. Or else:
The Trump administration said Wednesday it would impose new sanctions against Russia as punishment for its use of a nerve agent in an attempt last March to assassinate British citizen and ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
A terse release from the State Department said that the United States had determined Russian responsibility for the attack in Salisbury, England — a British conclusion the administration had already accepted — under a 1991 U.S. law on biological and chemical weapons use that requires the president to impose sanctions. …
The statement demanded that Russia “address all questions” related to the attack” and provide “full and complete disclosure” of its Novichok program. Last month, British Prime Minister Theresa May urged Trump to raise the issue of the poisonings when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, although it remained unclear whether the subject came up in their talks.
Consider this a do-over. To some extent, the decision to act was out of Trump’s hands, at least theoretically. The Washington Post notes that the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act requires the White House to determine whether existing treaties on chemical/biological warfare has been violated, and then apply sanctions when such a finding is made. In practice, that hasn’t always meant a robust response; the Obama administration avoided action as long as possible on Syria despite knowing full well that Bashar al-Assad was using them on his own people. Once the administration made the call, new sanctions were a required result.
The scope of the sanctions announced today, however, is surprisingly broad. NBC News, while noting that Trump dragged his heels past the statutory deadline for acting, notes that the administration laid down a marker that is seemingly calculated to ensure that the tougher sanctions go into effect:
The biggest impact from the initial sanctions is expected to come from a ban on granting licenses to export sensitive national security goods to Russia, which in the past have included items like electronic devices and components, along with test and calibration equipment for avionics. Prior to the sanctions, such exports were allowed on a case-by-case basis.
That new prohibition could cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in future exports to Russia, said a senior State Department official. …
A second, more painful round kicks in three months later unless Russia provides “reliable assurances” that it won’t use chemical weapons in the future and agrees to “on-site inspections” by the U.N. — conditions unlikely to be met. The second round of sanctions could include downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending state airline Aeroflot’s ability to fly to the U.S, and cutting off nearly all exports and imports.
In other words, it’s no joke. It sets a bar — let’s call it a “red line” — that Trump will find difficult to take back, and Putin will find impossible to swallow. The result will almost certainly be more diplomatic expulsions and a shutdown in trade that might ding the US economy but will hit Russia much harder. That will damage Putin’s standing with the only people in Russia who matter — the oligarchs.
The timing is also curious. Senator Rand Paul had just delivered a message from Trump to Putin while traveling to Russia to promote friendlier ties between the two nations:
I was honored to deliver a letter from President Trump to President Vladimir Putin’s administration. The letter emphasized the importance of further engagement in various areas including countering terrorism, enhancing legislative dialogue and resuming cultural exchanges.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) August 8, 2018
The White House distanced itself from the effort almost immediately:
The White House later released its own statement underscoring that the letter was “introductory” and written at the request of Paul.
“At Sen. Paul’s request, President Trump provided a letter of introduction,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “In the letter, the president mentioned topics of interest that Senator Paul wanted to discuss with President Putin.”
Within a few hours, Trump turned Paul into the “good cop” to his “bad cop.” Let that be a lesson to senators who want to conduct their own public diplomacy.