The Trump administration says it won’t impose any of the sanctions that Congress overwhelmingly voted to level at Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. Part of the measure directed the Treasury Department to compile a list of Russian figures in an effort to "name and shame" them. John Yang talks to Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about that list and more.
But, first, we return to the Trump administration’s policy toward Russia.
John Yang has more on that and a look ahead to the upcoming presidential election there.
Judy, last summer, Congress overwhelmingly voted to sanction Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Last night, the Trump administration said it is not imposing any of those sanctions because the threat of them is enough. The measure also directed the Treasury Department to compile a list of Russian senior political leaders, heads of state-controlled industries and oligarchs worth more than a billion dollars in an effort to name and shame them.
Last night, the Treasury Department sent Congress a list of more than 200 names. It includes Russian Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev, Igor Sechin, the chief of Rosneft, a Russian energy giant. He is also part of President Putin’s inner circle.
And Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire aluminum magnate with alleged ties to corporate — sorry — to organized crime. He is also the business partner — or was the business partner of now indicted and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Joining us now to talk all about this is Andrew Weiss. He worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations as a staffer on the National Security Council and in the state and Defense Departments. He’s now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Andrew, thanks for being here.
Let’s begin with this list. What’s the point of it? The Treasury Department was careful to say no one on this list is being sanctioned, so why did Congress want to draw it up, and what does being on that list mean?
Well, you said a second ago that the core of the sanctions bill, which was approved last summer, was basically to tie the hands of the administration and to make sure that there would be no precipitous effort by the new administration to basically take the heat off of Vladimir Putin for what he’s done in Ukraine, what he’s doing in Syria, what he did in our election.
As an added sort of attempt to kind of needle this administration to do whatever they could to create so much sort of negative valence around Russia’s business and government figures, they said compile a list and show us how dirty these people are.
That wasn’t something that the administration was enthusiastic about. They have resisted this entire sanctions bill tooth and nail. And then when the time came to finally deliver the report to Congress, they basically said, here’s a list we have cut and pasted out of — basically out of open sources to make the effect as limited as possible.
You say that they have fought this sanctions bill tooth and nail. Yesterday, the State Department said that the threat of sanctions was deterrence enough against the Russians for meddling in the elections.
But then Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, said they are already trying to meddle in the 2018 elections. So, what do you say — what’s your response or how do you take that?
Well, dysfunction and incoherence are now the norm in the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
So, the fact that you have basically an administration where no one really trusts them on Russia policy, people basically hear what Donald Trump says. He talks continuously, including last week, about the possibility of a new reset with the Russians. He continues to exaggerate Russia’s relevance for our foreign policy agenda.
And then you have people down below inside the bureaucracy who want to show that they’re tough and who want to show that Russia’s behavior will have consequences. You can’t combine those two approaches.
How is this being interpreted in Russia?
Well, right now, Russia is in a pre-election frenzy. And so for Vladimir Putin to be able to say, see, the United States is targeting us, they want to bring us back to where we were at our low point in the 1990s, today, when Vladimir Putin was speaking on Russian television, he said all 146 million Russians are on this list.
So, what he’s trying to do is a classic strategy — he’s done this consistently over the last 18 years in power — of saying, the West is against us. And if we rally behind me, I will keep Russia strong.
So, in many ways, we play into his hands.
The first round is March 18. He’s saying that this is an example of the United States trying to meddle in the Russian election.
Right. And that, to me, has zero credibility. And a former president of Estonia joked today: I don’t know what’s funnier, the sanctions being as empty as they are or you claiming you have an election.
And, also, what is going on with the sort of — is this an effort on Vladimir Putin to sort of boost the turnout, to try to really get a big — look like a huge mandate out of this election?
That’s where the Kremlin is I think legitimately worried.
The lack of any real competitive political process, the lack of any drama about this election has basically put most of the Russian body politic into a snooze mode. And there is very little to get them excited enough to return Vladimir Putin for his presumably fourth and final term with a big turnout or a big boost.
So, at this point, there’s mostly inertia, apathy, and lack of alternatives that is cementing his rule.
And is the opposition trying to get turnout down?
So, on Sunday, there were demonstrations across Russia convened by the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who is calling for a boycott of election.
The Kremlin is clearly very concerned about that and is doing whatever he can to push him basically out of the news.
Andrew Weiss at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thanks for helping us understand this.