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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

The voting in the House of Representatives of the US Congress over the draft law "On Countering the Aggressive Policy of the Governments of Iran, Russia, North Korea and Other Threats" nullifies the results of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Hamburg. The talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit gave rise to a wave of euphoria or, at least, cautious optimism. The presidents discussed all the complex issues, managed to stay in their positions and at the same time to bypass the most acute corners. Nevertheless, after the meeting, the American side continues to tighten consistently its positions. The draft law on sanctions against Russia leaves no room for compromise and cements the US's hostile policy toward Moscow for decades to come.

The toughening of the American position after Hamburg puts Russia at a disadvantage. It will either have to punch fist on the table, or, in the worst kind, pretend that nothing terrible happened and continue to search for compromises and solutions, not paying attention to the increasing pressure. At the same time, further intensification of pressure against Russia is almost inevitable. This is caused by a number of factors.

First, the pressure on Russia can and will go through numerous channels, bypassing the US president, even if we take for granted the fact that he would like to normalize relations with Russia. Trump himself may well use the Russian card to fight his opponents inside the US, periodically exacerbating conflict, as it happened with a missile attack in Syria. It is also important that the anti-Russian campaign in the United States is already living its own life and has become a chronic factor that will prevail over diplomats.

Second, the situation in Ukraine and especially in Syria remains extremely fragile and vulnerable to provocations. There are no reasons that could induce the Americans to change their position on the Ukrainian issue. Here we can observe further radicalization of the American position in case of another round of clashes. To provoke them, as recent experience shows, is very easy. It is far from obvious that communication with the new US special representative for Ukraine will solve the problems, especially given his "hawkish" position. The situation in Syria is even more unstable, where the number of players capable of destabilizing the situation is much greater.

Third, the modernization of the US armed forces and the growth of defense spending will intensify the tension in bilateral relations. Today, there are no serious grounds for Washington to change its position on spending increase. The modernization of nuclear arsenals will be particularly sensitive. In this area, one must be prepared for unpleasant surprises, like the further degradation of the INF Treaty.

Fourth, there is the survivability of the "authoritarian Russia" narrative and the positioning of Russia as a counterparty with dubious legitimacy. Trump diligently avoids bringing up the subject, for the time being. But its presence in the American discourse is only increasing.

Finally, fifth, the anti-Russian policy of the United States is close to get a comprehensive legislative framework. Voting in the House of Representatives on anti-Russian sanctions is an important step along this path. The adoption of the bill will determine the US policy towards Russia for decades to come. And this will be a policy of strangling Russia. The bill is notable for the following components.

First of all, Russia is not the only subject of the bill. The document also provides sanctions against Iran and North Korea, as well as actions to counter terrorism. In other words, the bill places Russia in the line of "rogue states", as well as together with issues comparable to terrorism. This cuts the ground out from under the feet of those who hoped to minimize the damage from sanctions and preserve the Russian-American cooperation within the framework of the "five on Iran" and "six on Korea". In Moscow it is now quite natural to ask the question: what is the point of cooperation with Washington on these issues, if we are equated with the same problems?

The next important point:  the bill includes a wide range of "misconducts" for which Russia should be punished. Here are Ukraine, Syria, cyber space, medium and short range missiles, interference in elections, propaganda, corruption, human rights, and energy policy. This means that any steps towards Washington or attempts to compromise on certain issues are doomed to failure in advance. The bill devalues diplomacy in Russian-American relations, making meaningless any initiatives to resolve the accumulated problems. Why should Moscow negotiate with the United States and its allies on Syria or Ukraine if they can always get the human rights out of their pockets, or democracy, motivating them to keep sanctions and hostile policies in general? Such an approach makes any theoretical compromises on the part of Russia a game in one gate.

Further. The bill twists the hands of any country of the world, which plans to cooperate with Russia. This is mainly about energy, although sanctions are also implied in a number of other sectors - railway transport, mining, defense, etc. One can understand the indignation of the European allies of the United States, which are Russia's key trading partners. It is interesting that the bill directly spells out the goal of the American companies to enter the energy market of Europe by ousting Russia from it. The EU taxpayers will have to pay for this. But more importantly, sanctions can be applied against any country, including, by the way, the members of the EAEU and any other country that is more or less friendly towards Russia.

It is interesting that the bill also presupposes a very strict reporting system. Practically in all directions the Congress will have to receive regular reports from the executive branch. Such reports should, for example, include information on Russian businessmen and the extent of their relationship with the Russian government. This means that any more or less big Russian businessman should be kept under surveillance and contracts with the state, for example, can become a matter for sanctions. Their introduction is left for the executive. The administration can look at this or that "violation" through fingers, but at the same time it receives a tool for pressure and manipulation.

Finally, the verification of many provisions remains extremely vague and fuzzy. Especially that many of the claims of the American side are still unproven. This negates any hopes for any constructive discussion.

In the final analysis, sanctions leave Russia the only alternative — to accept the US as a strategic and key challenge to its security. And if earlier such a position could be disputed, now it is receiving the most serious legitimacy by the hands of the congressmen. The irony is that sanctions threaten not only Russia's security, but also the security of the US itself. The power and capabilities of Russia cannot be overestimated. But they should hardly be underestimated. And if earlier diplomats had a wide maneuver for cooperation where both sides benefited, now the space for such a maneuver is reliably concreted at the legislative level.

For the sake of justice, it should be noted that the bill provides a softening of positions in the event that corresponds to the vital interests of the United States. The big question is whether Moscow cooperates if Washington has really vital problems.

Author: Ivan Timofeev is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, Director of Programs at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

First published in Valdai Discussion Club.

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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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