Rus­sia’s sanc­tions re­tal­i­a­tion

Pres­i­dent Trump’s blind spot on elec­tion med­dling con­tin­ues to mud­dle U.S. pol­icy on Rus­sia.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Vladimir Putin’s de­ci­sion to or­der a re­duc­tion in the U.S. diplo­matic pres­ence in Rus­sia is an ad­mis­sion of de­feat in his ef­forts to re­v­erse sanc­tions im­posed by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for Rus­sia’s med­dling in last year’s U.S. elec­tions. “We waited for quite a long time” to re­spond, Putin said in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view Sun­day, in the hope “that, per­haps, some­thing will change for the bet­ter.”

But it’s easy to see why Putin might have thought Pres­i­dent Trump in the end would for­give Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the race for the White House — which U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies de­scribed as “a sig­nif­i­cant es­ca­la­tion in di­rect­ness, level of ac­tiv­ity, and scope of ef­fort com­pared to pre­vi­ous op­er­a­tions aimed at U.S. elec­tions.”

In De­cem­ber, when Putin didn’t im­me­di­ately re­tal­i­ate for Pres­i­dent Obama’s ex­pul­sion of 35 Rus­sian diplo­mats and his clos­ing of two com­pounds al­legedly used for es­pi­onage, then-Pres­i­dent-elect Trump tweeted: “Great move on de­lay (by V. Putin) — I al­ways knew he was very smart!”

Af­ter Trump took of­fice, his ad­min­is­tra­tion floated the idea of eas­ing sanc­tions. Last month, Trump aide Se­bas­tian Gorka said the ad­min­is­tra­tion was con­sid­er­ing re­turn­ing the two com­pounds to Rus­sia be­cause “we want to give col­lab­o­ra­tion [and] co­op­er­a­tion a chance.”

And even when Putin lost pa­tience and re­tal­i­ated, it wasn’t be­cause Trump changed his mind about Rus­sian med­dling. “Maybe they did it, maybe they didn’t do it,” Trump re­cently was quoted as say­ing.

What re­ally hap­pened is that veto-proof ma­jori­ties in both houses of Congress gave Trump lit­tle choice but to sign leg­is­la­tion cod­i­fy­ing these sanc­tions and oth­ers pun­ish­ing Rus­sia for its ag­gres­sion in Ukraine and arms ship­ments to Syria. (The bill also im­poses sanc­tions on North Korea and Iran.) Trump ra­tio­nal­ized his de­ci­sion to sign the leg­is­la­tion by claim­ing, un­con­vinc­ingly, that “crit­i­cal el­e­ments” had been mod­i­fied to meet his ob­jec­tions.

Ob­vi­ously, the United States must deal with Rus­sia on a va­ri­ety of is­sues, in­clud­ing North Korea, the war in Syria and ne­go­ti­a­tions on the two su­per­pow­ers’ nu­clear ar­se­nals. But the U.S. must pro­ceed cau­tiously and with due re­gard for Rus­sia’s hos­tile be­hav­ior to­ward the U.S. and its al­lies.

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence seems to rec­og­nize that. Speak­ing in Tallinn, Es­to­nia, on Mon­day, Pence said that “the pres­i­dent and our Congress are uni­fied in our mes­sage to Rus­sia — a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship, and the lift­ing of sanc­tions, will re­quire Rus­sia to re­v­erse the ac­tions that caused the sanc­tions to be im­posed in the first place.”

That mes­sage would ring truer, though, if Trump would stop ques­tion­ing whether Rus­sia re­ally was guilty as charged.

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