Flap over sanc­tions has an up­side for Trump and Putin

Both lead­ers can turn dis­cord in U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions into a chance to score po­lit­i­cal points with their re­spec­tive do­mes­tic bases, an­a­lysts say

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - By Laura King and Sabra Ayres laura.king@la­times.com Times staff writer King re­ported from Wash­ing­ton and spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Ayres from Lon­don.

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump is warn­ing that U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions are at a per­ilous nadir. But for both him and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, this par­tic­u­lar dark cloud has a dis­tinct sil­ver lin­ing.

Both lead­ers can probably use the current im­broglio over U.S. sanc­tions to score po­lit­i­cal points with their re­spec­tive do­mes­tic bases, an­a­lysts say. And af­ter the sanc­tions bill that Trump re­luc­tantly signed Wed­nes­day, Krem­lin and White House talk­ing points have con­tained some strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties — sug­gest­ing that de­spite the seem­ing an­i­mos­ity, Trump and Putin may not ac­tu­ally be so far apart in their views.

Putin is widely ex­pected to stand for re­elec­tion in March, and al­though a win is vir­tu­ally as­sured, he nat­u­rally wants the big­gest pos­si­ble mar­gin of vic­tory. And the Rus­sian leader is never more pop­u­lar than when he is able to de­pict him­self as a heroic sav­ior bat­tling out­side threats — in this case, from Wash­ing­ton.

“He has to ap­pear tough, to look as if he’s done the pa­tri­otic thing” in strik­ing back against U.S. sanc­tions, said An­gela Stent, the di­rec­tor of the Center for Eurasian, Rus­sian and East Euro­pean Stud­ies at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity.

Putin has ap­pealed to na­tion­al­ist pride to gar­ner sup­port for his in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive stance against the West since the Euro­pean Union and United States first placed sanc­tions on Rus­sia in 2014 for the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and Rus­sian’s in­cur­sions in eastern Ukraine.

In the run-up to next spring’s vote, the Rus­sian leader will seek to bol­ster turnout by “ral­ly­ing around the flag and ap­peal­ing to that raw na­tion­al­ism,” said James Nixey, di­rec­tor of Chatham House’s Rus­sian and Eura­sia Pro­gram

With harsher U.S. sanc­tions, he said, the Rus­sian leader can say, “Look at what Amer­ica is do­ing to us. We’ve ex­tended an olive branch to them and they have spurned us.”

Trump, who signed the sanc­tions bill af­ter it was passed by veto-proof mar­gins in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Se­nate, on Thurs­day blamed U.S. law­mak­ers for the dra­matic de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of re­la­tions that has ac­com­pa­nied the sanc­tions bill.

“Our re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia is at an all-time & very dan­ger­ous low,” he tweeted. “You can thank Congress, the same peo­ple that can’t even give us HCare!”

A day ear­lier, Moscow had also sug­gested that Congress was driv­ing the dis­cord. Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev ac­cused Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion — though not the pres­i­dent per­son­ally — of “hand­ing over ex­ec­u­tive power to Congress,” thus demon­strat­ing “to­tal weak­ness.”

Even be­fore Trump signed the sanc­tions mea­sure, Moscow announced re­tal­i­a­tion for it: the cut­ting, by nearly two-thirds, of staff at U.S. diplo­matic mis­sions in Rus­sia. In a no­table de­par­ture from past pres­i­den­tial prac­tice in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances, Trump re­frained from crit­i­ciz­ing Putin for that move.

Putin, for his part, said he re­gret­ted that mat­ters had come to such a junc­ture, but even as he announced Rus­sia’s re­tal­ia­tory steps, he voiced hopes for an even­tual im­prove­ment in re­la­tions. Trump, af­ter sign­ing the sanc­tions bill, ex­pressed sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments.

In a post-sign­ing state­ment to the news me­dia Wed­nes­day, Trump por­trayed him­self as a canny deal maker who would have been able to more ef­fec­tively in­flu­ence Rus­sian be­hav­ior, had he not been un­der­cut by Congress.

“I built a truly great com­pany worth many bil­lions of dollars. That is a big part of the rea­son I was elected,” he wrote. “As pres­i­dent, I can make far bet­ter deals with for­eign coun­tries than Congress.”

Among some Trump loy­al­ists, the mere fact that he signed the sanc­tions bill — even though its lop­sided mar­gin of approval left him lit­tle choice — re­in­forces the no­tion that mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions of po­ten­tial Rus­sian col­lu­sion with his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign are, as Trump him­self has so of­ten put it, “fake news.”

The nar­ra­tive that the pres­i­dent is not at all in thrall to the Krem­lin got a shout-out Thurs­day from a se­nior Rus­sian law­maker. “Trump is no pup­pet,” Alexan­der Sherin, who sits on the par­lia­men­tary de­fense com­mit­tee, told the Rus­sian news out­let Life.ru.

But if Trump seems more sym­pa­thetic to­ward Rus­sia than he is, for ex­am­ple, to­ward Congress, that also sits well with sup­port­ers. Opin­ion sur­veys point to a mea­sur­able in­crease in fa­vor­able at­ti­tudes about Rus­sia among his GOP base, said Eric Edel­man, a vet­eran diplo­mat who is now a se­nior fel­low at the Miller In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Virginia.

Trump can thus de­pict him­self as thwarted in at­tempts to build a con­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship for Moscow af­ter his face-to-face en­coun­ters with Putin last month at the Group of 20 sum­mit in Ger­many, Edel­man said.

“I think he’s go­ing to try to spin this as, ‘I had this great meet­ing, and now we’re in a Cold War — thanks, Congress,’ ” he said.

Still, the pres­i­dent’s seem­ing in­sin­u­a­tion that Rus­sia-re­lated strife em­anated more from Capi­tol Hill than the Krem­lin drew a re­buke Thurs­day from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a lead­ing Rus­sia hawk.

Re­ply­ing to Trump’s tweet, McCain point­edly echoed the pres­i­dent’s ex­act lan­guage in de­scrib­ing the U.S. re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia at a “dan­ger­ous low.”

But there he di­verged, adding: “You can thank Putin for at­tack­ing our democ­racy, in­vad­ing neigh­bors & threat­en­ing our al­lies.”

Evan Vucci As­so­ci­ated Press

PRES­I­DENT Trump, with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 sum­mit last month, blamed Congress for de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tions with Moscow.

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