Earlier this week, the European Council agreed to keep sanctions on Russia for another six months. In the run-up to the vote, there was talk of trying to extend the sanctions by a full year, but that was quickly shot down by the usual suspects. RFE/RL:
“We had a discussion that luckily ended without considering the option—which would have been wrong, I think—to react to the situation in Syria and Aleppo with EU sanctions against Russia,” Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said after an EU summit in Brussels on December 15.
He said “a majority of countries” agreed with Italy that imposing more sanctions on Russia, on top of those already imposed for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, would have been “a mistake.”
The United States, meanwhile, expanded the reach of the sanctions it already has in place, adding seven individuals and 36 companies to its blacklist. “Putin’s chef” is among those named:
The names added to the Specially Designated Nationals List include Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman whose company has provided catering to the Kremlin.
“These targeted sanctions aim to maintain pressure on Russia by sustaining the costs of its occupation of Crimea and disrupting the activities of those who support the violence and instability in Ukraine,” John Smith, acting director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement.
A consensus appears to be building—among economists at least—that this might be the sanctions’ last hurrah. Bloomberg:
The U.S. will start easing its penalties, imposed over the showdown in Ukraine in 2014, during the next 12 months, according to 55 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg survey, up from 10 percent in an October poll. […]
“It’s still a toss-up whether the U.S. will ease sanctions quickly, with the EU lagging, but the direction of travel is toward easier sanctions or less enforcement, which could reduce financing costs,” said Rachel Ziemba, the New York-based head of emerging markets at 4CAST-RGE.
No similar survey exists of journalists’ attitudes, but one could glean from the tone of coverage that most think capitulation on sanctions to Moscow is all but a foregone conclusion at this point. Most articles on the subject point to the President-elect’s various campaign pronouncements about trying to cooperate more with Moscow, including hints that he might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Many have even intimated that Trump’s connections could make him a virtual Manchurian Candidate for the Kremlin.
Trump’s rhetoric does suggest that he believes that bleeding-heart liberal idealism has soured U.S.-Russian relations beyond reason, and that some kind of reset should be tried. Unlike Barack Obama, who, along with Hillary Clinton and Michael McFaul, tried to improve relations by building bridges to the supposedly more reformist forces within Russia (Dmitry Medvedev had just become President in May 2008), Team Trump appears likely to try to speak Vladimir Putin’s language: State sovereignty will be respected, no fuss will be made about human rights, and Great Powers will transactionally negotiate the shape of the world.
However, that last point—transactional negotiations— suggests the reason why economists are still split on the issue. For one, Trump, who fancies himself to be a master negotiator, also notably hasn’t yet named what his price might be for sanctions relief. An opportunity to lift his country’s economy, taken alongside the optics of genially cooperating with the world’s last remaining superpower, might be tempting to Vladimir Putin as the March 2018 Presidential elections approach. Then again, it might not, especially depending on what the price is. Furthermore, as countless analysts have pointed out in the past few years, an external enemy is very useful for Putin, especially as a distraction from the endemic mismanagement and corruption that have characterized the latter half of his time in power. As if to underline the point, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, yesterday identified two irritants to U.S.-Russian relations—the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, and the sanctions—and said that Moscow doesn’t expect either of those issues to be resolved any time soon.
Maybe Trump ends up getting along with Putin as famously as Berlusconi did, and transactional deals flow as a result, fulfilling journalists’ worst fears. Or maybe the two big egos end up clashing, and this reset ends up like every single other reset with Russia attempted since the Cold War: a source of frustration, feelings of betrayal, and disappointment.