Yesterday the under fire Trump administration has made it clear that when Nikki Haley told the UN earlier this month that Crimea sanctions will remain in place “until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine” she was very much speaking for the White House.
The White House spokesman told the press that Trump has been “incredibly tough” on Russia, “continues to raise the issue of Crimea”, and very much expects Russia to “return Crimea”.
This is clearly disappointing and a setback for anyone who hoped for quick improvement in Russian-American relations, but it is all too easy to blow it out of proportion.
Firstly we should note the context. The remarks from Trump’s spokesman came at a press conference dealing with the resignation of Michael Flynn over his talks with the Russian ambassador.
Trump has been under relentless attack from his enemies who have chosen his stated desire not to have a WW3 with Russia as the best stick to hit him with.
In this context his attempt of deflecting this criticism by erecting a hardline facade is regrettable, but does not necessarily reflect a change in heart. Read Spicer’s words carefully:
The irony of this entire situation is that the President has been incredibly tough on Russia.
He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration had allowed to be seized by Russia.
These are very much the words of an administration whose real frustration is with unfair media treatment rather than with Russia.
At the same time, even in the midst of this Russia-themed media siege Trump team still had the courage to say they want to succeed where Obama failed and actually have working relations with the Russians:
At the same time, he fully expects to and wants to be able to get along with Russia, unlike previous administrations, so that we can solve many problems together facing the world, such as the threat of ISIS and terrorism.
The obvious retort is that it’s one thing to say you want better relations, but if you’re going around saying you’re keeping Crimea sanctions for good then no improvement can be expected.
However, that is not actually true.
Yes, Trump admin has tied Crimea sanctions to an impossible condition. However the series of Crimea-related sanctions are actually rather inconsequential.
They consist of sanctions against name Russian officials and sanctions against Crimea itself — bans which do not apply to Russia as a whole.
The truly damaging sanctions are not Crimea-related. They are the so called “sectoral sanctions” introduced in July 2014 when the civil war in east Ukraine flared up.
These sanctions for example ban any weapons-related sales to Russia, make it almost impossible for Russian banks and corporations to raise money in the west, and make it very difficult for western companies to invest in Russian oil and gas.
It will be only when Trump ties the lifting of these “East Ukraine sanctions” to an impossible condition that we will be able to say he has thrown in the towel and surrendered his Russia policy to the Washington group-think.
For now a Trump-driven US-Russian detante remains very much salvagable.