Outgoing US President Barack Obama on January 13 fired another parting shot at the Kremlin by moving to prolong sanctions against Russia for one year for its actions in Ukraine starting from March 2017, according to a White House statement.
The move, effected through a “continuation of the national emergency with respect to Ukraine”, caps a slew of measures evidently designed to lock in place the Obama administration's tougher line on Russia before Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th US president on January 20.
However, it was not clear whether this should translate into a concrete extension of the sanctions amid the change of administration, as some media reports indicated. Trump has indicated he might soften and remove the measures.
The deployment of almost 4,000 US troops with tanks and other armour was also brought forward so that the forces started arriving in Eastern Europe before Obama steps down. And in late December, 35 Russian diplomats were expelled from the US amid allegations of Kremlin meddling with last November’s elections in Trump’s favour.
Russia’s involvement in Ukraine continues to “pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”, the White House statement quoted Obama as saying. “For this reason, the national emergency declared on March 6, 2014, and the measures adopted on that date, on March 16, 2014, on March 20, 2014, and on December 19, 2014, to deal with that emergency, must continue in effect beyond March 6, 2017.”
“Therefore,… I am continuing for 1 year the national emergency declared in Executive Order 13660 (issued on March 16, 2014),” the president added.
During a visit to Kyiv on January 16, incumbent US Vice President Joseph Biden said the US and partners from the EU and G7 member states believe the sanctions must remain until Russia meets all commitments under the 2015 Minsk accords to end the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Russia is accused of undermining the process by sending troops and weapons to assist rebels fighting Ukrainian government forces.
“The political agreement cannot be implemented until Russian violence stops,” Biden said. “Only after Russia and its proxies in the east fulfill their obligations and end the fighting, and let the Donbas again enjoy peace and security, can Ukraine be expected to fulfill its political commitment [to the Minsk accords].
Trump’s statements so far indicate no firm position on the future of the sanctions.
“If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” Trump was quoted as saying to the Wall Street Journal in an interview published on January 14. At the same time he said the sanctions will be kept at first “for a period of time”.
Trump has also suggested that the Russia sanctions could be a subject of negotiation together with cutting US and Russian nuclear arsenals, which drew a cool response from Moscow.
“Let us be patient and wait [until] Mr. Trump takes office,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 16, adding that “then we will be able to pass judgement on his initiatives”.
Russia has signalled its readiness to normalise relations with both the US and the EU, with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov suggesting that Russia’s counter-sanctions on food imports could be lifted in a unilateral move in 2017.
Some minor signs of a policy shift on Russia is also to be seen in the EU. Germany, one of the main ‘hawks’ on Russia in the union, has bent the rules and reclassified a G20 meeting as an event of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in order to allow Russia to take part, the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland reported on January 13.
German Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt reportedly pushed to allow Russian Minister Alexander Tkachov to attend a G20 agriculture meeting in Berlin on January 22.
Meanwhile, despite statements by Trump and Putin in recent months favouring the establishment of pragmatic good relations between their countries, and evident areas of opportunity like counter-terrorism, commentators are pointing out areas that can quickly hamstring ties in future.