Why the Trump-Putin Bromance Could Be in Serious Trouble

Putin took his anger at pending US sanctions out on some American diplomats and Russian support staff. An expert told us more serious retaliation is likely.

by Mike Pearl
Aug 1 2017, 6:56pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz/Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images

Donald Trump, the same president so often referred to by liberal bloggers as "Putin's puppet," is expected to sign a new batch of sanctions targeting Russia any day now. And with the Pentagon mulling the possibility of providing arms to anti-separatist forces in Ukraine—something Barack Obama opposed—it's increasingly hard to make a simplistic case that Trump is prioritizing Moscow's interests.

Just in case, the sanctions bill recently passed by Congress features language that makes it almost impossible for Trump, whose inner circle remains under federal investigation for possible collusion with the Kremlin, to withdraw the measures. This president normally broadcasts his emotions to any Twitter user who wants to read them but has been mostly quiet about the bill. That may be because he's effectively powerless to push back: The sanctions passed by such an overwhelming, bipartisan majority that if Trump vetoed them, Congress would almost certainly override him and pass them into law anyway.

Vice President Mike Pence, for his part, spoke supportively of the bill on Tuesday in Tbilisi, Georgia, arguing that if Russia wants reconciliation, it "has to change its behavior."

Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin isn't hiding the fact that he's furious. On Friday, his government announced plans to seize two pieces of US diplomatic property in and near Moscow. And on Sunday, the former KGB agent personally announced US diplomatic employees working in Russia will need to find new jobs. "Over 1,000 employees—diplomats and technical workers—worked and continue to work today in Russia; 755 will have to stop this activity," Putin told local media. (Russia had telegraphed that it was considering these actions back in mid-July.)

That might not be the full extent of Moscow's retaliation, either. In the lead-up to the White House announcement that Trump would sign the sanctions, Konstantin Kosachev, the Russian lawmaker who heads the country's Foreign Affairs Committee, warned the US that "the future degradation of bilateral cooperation is becoming inevitable." He added that Russia plans to come back with a response that won't "symmetrical" but instead "one that is painful for the Americans."

We tried Putin's favorite form of martial arts:

For a sense of why these pending sanctions are making the Russians blow their collective lid so completely, and to learn a little bit about what other kinds of trouble may be on the horizon, I got in touch with Eugene Chausovsky, senior Eurasia analyst at the military intelligence firm Stratfor. He explained what, exactly, the sanctions do, and helped me try to forecast how this saga will play out.

VICE: Are these sanctions—which mostly go after Russia but also target Iran and North Korea—going to hurt Putin directly, or really dent Russian economic power? Or is Putin just mad because he doesn't like being messed with?
Eugene Chausovsky: Well, as far as hurting Putin, they'll certainly tighten the restrictions that the US already had in place against Russia, particularly in the energy sphere. When you're dealing with things like offshore, deep-water, or shale projects, that's going to be significantly restricted in terms of US persons or companies operating within these kinds of projects.

What does sanctioning Russia's energy and oil sector mean? Is that like stopping those projects from being financed, or stopping Russia from physically getting the oil?
It's actually both. There are the financial sanctions on certain energy companies that will certainly limit US personnel or companies from dealing in certain maturities of debt issued. That has been changed to all debt with a maturity of over 60 days [making it harder for sanctioned companies and people to obtain short-term loans]. Then, as far as the [restrictions on] participation [by energy companies], that refers to operations in any new offshore deep-water or shale projects globally, where Russian companies have either a controlling stake or a substantial minority stake of 33 percent or higher.

Does any of this have a negative impact on average, workaday Russians?
These sanctions are not completely new. They're tightening sanctions that are already in place, particularly targeting the energy sector. Certainly the average Russian has been hurting in recent years, but I would argue that that's more in line with Russia's economic weakness as a result of low oil prices than from the sanctions. So the answer, I guess, is, yes, it certainly doesn't help. But I don't think it has as dramatic of an impact on the Russian economy—and on individual Russians—as the broader macroeconomic conditions in Russia.

You mentioned these sanctions aren't entirely new. What parts are novel?
It's basically just ratcheting up the economic sanctions that were already put in place [under the Obama administration]. Some of these are optional, for example the sanctions on firms that help develop Russian energy export pipelines. That's where the Nord Stream 2 controversy comes in. But that's optional [Trump has to decide whether or not to apply this measure].

I hear Germany's pissed off about that part. What's going on there?
[Nord Stream 2] isn't about increasing Germany's imports of Russian gas. It would basically be giving them another avenue [through] which to import Russian gas, [rather] than going around to more risky mainland European pipelines—which go through countries like Ukraine, for example. So the reason Germany is opposed to this is because they don't want the US to have a say in their own pipeline projects, whereas other countries, like the Baltic countries, are less worried. And actually that's what's going to prevent EU unity from overriding or really challenging the US on this.

So the EU is divided here?
When you're talking about upsetting the "EU," you have to keep in mind that the EU is a group of 28 member states*, so it's not acting in one monolithic manner. That's actually something Russia tries to exploit by manipulating and trying to create divisions between the EU member states. Nord Stream 2 is the perfect example of this, because Germany certainly has commercial interests in a pipeline like this. [Then] you have countries that aren't thinking only in a commercial perspective—they're also speaking in geopolitical terms.

Which countries are we talking about here?
The borderland countries in between Germany and Russia, the Baltic States, and also Poland. These are the kinds of energy projects that Russia uses to try to manipulate divisions within Europe—that's why the projects have been so controversial. But this is also the reason why it's not going to be possible to get complete unanimity from this from within the EU.

So Russia has already retaliated by seizing US diplomatic property, and demanding the firing of staffers who had been working in those places. What do you think is next?
I think what we should be watching for in terms of the Russian response is [a] quote-unquote "asymmetrical response." That's something Russia has referenced before, and something they've used before. Basically, they respond to what they consider Western aggression in different theaters that don't have direct correlation but are nonetheless intended to wear on the US, or the show the US that it [Moscow] has areas where it can bring the pain.

Where can Russia bring the pain?
One [place] is Ukraine. In the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the negotiations there haven't really produced any significant movement from a political perspective. So I think it's an area where Russia can look to sort of ratchet up tensions. Now that sanctions have not only been extended but increased, that's one area where Russia can try to ramp up—perhaps in a limited but still painful way—against the Ukrainian forces and [in favor of] the separatists that it influences.

Russia also tends to defy the US in North Korea and Syria. and the sanctions passed by Congress have implications for the Middle East and Asia, as well. Can Russia do anything to interfere on those fronts even more?
Since Russia has a seat on the UN Security Council, they can look to any sanctions or moves by the US, and veto. They can build up relations they have with the North Korean regime, and try to play a spoiler role there. And [with] Syria, between the US and Russia there was recently the ceasefire agreement in southwestern Syria, that's something Russia can either pull out of, or look to other areas where it can play that spoiler role.

How big of a nuisance will Putin have to be to make his voice heard here?
I don't think [Russia's response is] going to be hugely disruptive in terms of affecting the world's order. I just mean, these are irritants essentially that Russia can use on the US. The goal is essentially to get the US back into that negotiating position—back into a conciliatory or compromising position. Right now the opposite is happening.

The New York Times wrote about these sanctions as evidence that Putin's apparent plan to get Trump elected has backfired. Is that your interpretation?
There's a couple different ways to look at it. Certainly, what Russia was hoping for was a new US administration that would be more willing to work with them, and have a less confrontational relationship than under the previous administration. Trump, during the election campaign, seemed like he was the candidate more willing to do that. [So] in that sense, you could argue that it has backfired. But [Putin] is a pretty strategic thinker, [and] I think realistically, he knew there would be major constraints, and that it wouldn't be easy for Trump to change all the engrained policies toward Russia.

Barring this dramatic turnaround, what Russia is interested in, if it can't get the policies it wants from the US, then at the very least Trump presents them with someone who can foster their "chaos campaign." It's like, OK, let's at least try to exacerbate the internal divisions within the US, which I would argue we have been seeing to an extent. [In] a certain sense, you could argue it has backfired, but Russia's playing a long game. Putin's not just looking at the next few weeks and months, but also where things are going in the next months or years, so time will tell on that.

If these sanctions resemble current and recent ones so closely, it seems worth asking if those recent sanctions actually worked. Have they?
The US is trying to get Russia to implement the Minsk Protocol, an agreement about the future of Ukraine. And we haven't seen any of that happen in terms of Russia pulling back its support for the separatists, Russia stopping its military actions in and around that territory. So the sanctions, if we're looking at them from [a standpoint] of trying to get Russia to be more compliant, so far they have not been effective. But if the goal is to weaken Russia over time, that remains to be seen.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

*Correction 8/3/17: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of EU states due to a transcription error. It is 28, not 20. We regret the error.

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international relations
Vladimir Putin
Donald Trump
foreign relations