Rus­sia sees Pres­i­dent Trump as ‘a’ con­duit for eased sanc­tions

‘It’s more about in­sti­tu­tions, not per­son­al­i­ties’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Rus­sia’s gov­ern­ment de­nies that it tam­pered in the US elec­tion or even took sides. But now that the re­sults are in, mem­bers of Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s United Rus­sia party aren’t hold­ing back. “It turns out that United Rus­sia won the elec­tions in Amer­ica,” Vik­tor Nazarov, the gover­nor of Omsk, Rus­sia, de­clared in a ra­dio in­ter­view.

Long be­fore Don­ald Trump was on the radar of Amer­i­can vot­ers, Rus­sia had deep in­ter­ests in the out­come of elec­tions around the world. But 2016 pre­sented a unique win­dow. Mo­ti­vated by years of crip­pling eco­nomic sanc­tions and decades of post-Soviet set­backs, the Rus­sians were keener than ever to pounce; the race for the White House, plagued by party in­fight­ing and scan­dal, was easy bait.

For Putin, sanc­tions re­lief is a gate­way to the ul­ti­mate goal of es­tab­lish­ing Rus­sia as the politi­cal and eco­nomic equiv­a­lent of the United States. Trump, who has ex­tolled Putin’s lead­er­ship and called for a tem­pered ap­proach to US-Rus­sia re­la­tions, may be a con­duit to achiev­ing that. “It’s much more about in­sti­tu­tions, not about per­son­al­i­ties,” said Robert Am­s­ter­dam, an in­ter­na­tional at­tor­ney who has a num­ber of high-pro­file Russian clients. Putin “was se­ri­ously im­pacted by the sanc­tions be­cause it tar­geted his clos­est friends and now they think Trump is go­ing to change that.”

US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies said in Oc­to­ber they are con­fi­dent that the Russian gov­ern­ment hacked the e-mails of US cit­i­zens and in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing politi­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions, and handed them over to DCLeaks.com and Wik­iLeaks for distri­bu­tion. Hacked Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee emails in July, in­di­cat­ing that DNC lead­ers were fa­vor­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton over Sen. Bernie San­ders in the pri­maries, prompted the res­ig­na­tion of chair­woman Deb­bie Wasser­man Schultz.

Break­ing the shack­les

“Weaponiz­ing in­for­ma­tion is re­ally about who gets to write the truth, who gets to write the nar­ra­tive and who ben­e­fits from that nar­ra­tive - and that is in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful,” said Laura Galante, di­rec­tor of in­tel­li­gence anal­y­sis at cy­ber­se­cu­rity firm FireEye, Inc. Rus­sia has sought to put it­self on an equal foot­ing with the US since the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, ex­tend­ing its ter­ri­tory where it can, coun­ter­ing US mil­i­tary ac­tion and po­si­tion­ing it­self as a ri­val to the world’s big­gest econ­omy.

But its am­bi­tions suf­fered a set­back in 2014 when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion au­tho­rized sanc­tions against sec­tors of the Russian econ­omy, in­clud­ing fi­nan­cial ser­vices, en­ergy, min­ing and de­fense. The ad­min­is­tra­tion also sanc­tioned peo­ple in Putin’s in­ner circle ac­cused of un­der­min­ing peace in Ukraine. Add to that fall­ing oil prices and a weak ru­ble, and Rus­sia’s econ­omy was shack­led. The im­pact has been ex­ten­sive. Rus­sia’s sov­er­eign wealth fund had $87 bil­lion in as­sets in De­cem­ber 2013, ac­cord­ing to the Russian Fi­nance Min­istry. As of June 1, it was down to $38 bil­lion, fol­low­ing sell-offs by the Russian gov­ern­ment to make up for bud­get deficits. US trade with Rus­sia tum­bled to $23 bil­lion in 2015, from about $34 bil­lion the pre­vi­ous year. Sanc­tions that im­pede Rus­sia’s abil­ity to ac­quire equip­ment for Arc­tic off­shore drilling are of par­tic­u­lar con­cern be­cause they hold the key to Rus­sia’s rapid ex­pan­sion in that sec­tor.

“Lift­ing re­stric­tions on ex­ports of tech­nol­ogy, soft­ware, things that re­ally help their en­ergy in­dus­try ex­tract oil and gas” would be the top pri­or­ity, said Boris Zil­ber­man, a Rus­sia ex­pert at the Cen­ter on Sanc­tions and Il­licit Fi­nance at the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies. “Pro­duc­tion is dwin­dling over time, so they’re go­ing into new, off­shore, deep-wa­ter drilling in the Arc­tic and so on, and to do that, they re­ally need Western tech­nol­ogy,” he said.

Sanc­tions re­lief is im­por­tant to Rus­sia’s broader ob­jec­tive of su­per­power sta­tus, shown by its bullish Syria pol­icy. Syria’s Russian-backed mil­i­tary made ma­jor gains in rebel-held east­ern Aleppo in re­cent days and rebel re­sis­tance ap­peared to be crum­bling. While Moscow and Wash­ing­ton are con­tin­u­ously at odds over Syria, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has not im­posed any Syria-re­lated sanc­tions.

Closer co­op­er­a­tion

Trump’s prom­ise of closer co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia has cre­ated wor­ries that the US will have di­min­ished lever­age. He said dur­ing the cam­paign that un­der his lead­er­ship the US might not come to the de­fense of some NATO mem­bers if Rus­sia were to at­tack them, in­di­cat­ing he would make that de­ci­sion based on whether those Baltic re­publics “have ful­filled their obli­ga­tions to us.”

But Trump’s po­si­tions are hard to assess be­cause he’s of­ten stepped away from his more con­tro­ver­sial pro­pos­als. Trump’s choice as de­fense sec­re­tary, re­tired Gen James Mat­tis, has called Rus­sia’s ag­gres­sion in Ukraine a prob­lem “much more se­vere, more se­ri­ous” than Wash­ing­ton and the Euro­pean Union are treat­ing it. Putin and Trump spoke soon af­ter his vic­tory and a state­ment from Trump’s tran­si­tion team said the pres­i­dent-elect told Putin he looked for­ward to “a strong and en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ship.” Ob­servers cau­tion that Putin’s in­ter­ests are self­mo­ti­vated and Rus­sia’s in­cen­tive to in­ter­fere in US pol­i­tics won’t go away with Trump’s vic­tory. “It’s not that Putin is against the Demo­cratic Party,” Zil­ber­man said.

“He’s more against the United States and (for) what­ever may push Russian in­ter­ests.” He added: “There’s noth­ing say­ing that next time they won’t hack Repub­li­cans and ex­pose Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion emails if it ben­e­fits them.”

CINCIN­NATI: In this Dec 1, 2016, photo, Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump ges­tures as he speaks dur­ing a “USA Thank You” tour event. — AP

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