Did Congress Just Break Up the Trump-Putin Bromance?
Policy + Politics

Did Congress Just Break Up the Trump-Putin Bromance?

Carlos Barria

Despite all the accusations and evidence that Russia hacked the 2016 election (and possibly others), the United States hasn’t retaliated. Until now.

The White House said it would sign a Congressional bill slapping new sanctions on Moscow for meddling in the 2016 presidential election and for its military actions in Syria. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed 755 people, most of whom will be Russian employees from U.S. diplomatic posts in Russia.

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But there are signs that Russia is already backing down. Speaking in Moscow Monday, Dmitri S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to keep his campaign promise to improve relations with Russia.

“The will to normalize these relations should be placed on the record,” Peskov said. He added that the “attempt at sanctions diktat” should be abandoned by Washington. Peskov also suggested that the United States forced Russia’s hand and that Putin did not want to make relations worse by firing embassy staff.

“Of course, we’re not interested in those relations being subject to erosion,” Peskov said. “We’re interested in sustainable development of our relations and can only regret that, for now, we are far from this ideal.”

Peskov’s statement offers a rare show of Russian weakness when it comes to the United States. Russia’s economy might not be able to stand another round of sanctions (previous penalties for Moscow’s actions in Ukraine by the United States and Europe are already in place.)

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Dozens of senior Russian officials close to Putin, separatist commanders and Russian firms accused of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty are already forbidden from doing business outside of Russia. U.S. energy firms are prohibited from doing business with their Russian counterparts, starving Putin’s economic lifeblood. Bank Rossiya, described as the "personal bank" for senior Russian officials, has been blacklisted.

Trump’s resolve when it comes to punishing Russia is also in question. On Friday, officials said he planned to sign the legislation, but only because he had to; Congress has the votes override his veto. And any sign of weakness on Russia is additional fuel for critics who said Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign benefited the president.

“I think he [Trump] also has to consider that a veto would come at a price," Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Voice of America last week. "It would be seen as one more piece suggesting that in fact something improper was worked out between the Trump campaign and the Russians back during the election in 2016.”

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Earlier signs of Trump’s support for the law are rare. At the start of the month, Trump and Putin had several quiet, friendly moments together during the G20 meeting in Hamburg. White House officials have lobbied Congress to soften the bill, to no avail. Lawmakers were so concerned about Trump’s unwillingness to enforce the new sanctions that it included language in the legislation that forbade him from weakening them.

Earlier in July, the White House’s top legislative liaison, Marc Short, said the law amounted to an “unusual precedent of delegating foreign policy to 535 members of Congress.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also asked Congress not to impede his “flexibility” to bargain with Moscow.

Last Thursday, incoming White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci suggested Trump might veto the bill. “He may sign the sanctions exactly the way they are, or he may veto the sanctions and negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians,” Scaramucci told CNN.

On Monday, opposition to the new measures grew in Europe. The German economy minister, Brigitte Zypries, told German media that new law would hurt European firms. "We consider this as being against international law, plain and simple," Zypries said. "Of course, we don't want a trade war. But it is important the European Commission now looks into countermeasures."