Russia-US relations facing a bleak future
The new US sanctions against Russia, imposed in response to the alleged chemical attack in the UK targeting former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, came into effect on Monday after a one-week delay. The postponement shows that there are contradictions in Washington, either between the White House and lawmaking bodies or within the administration itself, or possibly both.
The sanctions are to be introduced in two stages. The first, imposed this week, placed limits on the export and supply to Russia of certain technologies that are considered related to US national security, as well as banning non-existent financial aid. The US also demands Russia permit access for UN chemical weapons inspectors to certain facilities. There is a deadline of 90 days for Russia to respond and, in case of none, the US will move on to the second stage of sanctions — downgrading diplomatic relations and severing all ties with Russia, except with its space industry, which is hugely important to America.
With investigations into Russian interference in the US elections ongoing, it is very difficult to foresee any improvement in relations or cooperation in the short term.
The Russian reaction has been restrained. The Kremlin said it would review the sanctions in full before considering a possible response, adding that Russia will act in its best interests. Russia stressed that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last year recognized that it had destroyed its chemical weaponry and facilities, which is not the case for the US. Moscow also insists it is not culpable in the Skripal affair. From the Russian point of view, it has never been proved to be guilty, while the poisoning of the two other British citizens with the nerve agent was crumpled in the shadows by the British government, which raises serious questions regarding what went on behind closed doors.
Russia says that the new US sanctions make dialogue between the two countries more difficult. What is clear in Moscow is that Washington is ready to go further and peace is not on its agenda.
The roots of the current crisis lie in the perspective with which Americans view Russia and its leadership. Bilateral relations between the two countries are at their worst since Trump became president because of the weakening of American power and the rise of Russia worldwide.
At their July summit in Helsinki, Vladimir Putin and Trump looked very pessimistic about the chances of reaching a “grand bargain.” The rapprochement between Moscow and Washington and cooperation between the two sides to resolve a number of global problems, from wars in Ukraine and Syria to climate change, have gone with the wind after America continued to impose sanctions on Russia and its economic and political figures and entities.
No one can predict the future course of US-Russian relations. This level of unpredictability has not emerged since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union was dissolved. What is different in US-Russian relations today is the lack of confidence.
After Russia rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union, the West did not know how to respond. Eventually, in 2009, former US President Barack Obama tried to reset the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Washington later imposed economic and financial sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, never mind the policy of deterrence in terms of an increased NATO presence in the Baltic region.
At the same time, there were other structural factors working for Russia, including the decline of the influence of the West and the rise of the Chinese dragon. Europe has not fully recovered from the devastating impact of the 2008 financial crisis, as the collapse of confidence in the European economy, and the West in general, has worsened with the influx of refugees across the Mediterranean. This was followed by the 2016 British vote to leave the EU.
What is the course of Russian-US relations in the future? With investigations into Russian interference in the US elections ongoing, it is very difficult to foresee any improvement in relations or cooperation in the short term.
Sanctions are not and will never be effective against a country such as Russia — they will never make Moscow change its policies, and they may even have the opposite effect. In Russia, there is a saying that, if you face lots of obstacles on your way and others try to stop you, it means that you are moving in the right direction. The sanctions policy chosen by the current US administration is counterproductive and has already proved to be ineffective.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub).