The Sanctions on Russia That Never Came

The White House’s walk-back on punitive measures expected Monday shows an administration at odds with itself—as well as the complexity of responding to alleged chemical strikes in Syria.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

There is a certain pattern to foreign-policy announcements from the Trump administration: A senior official foreshadows a new, tough announcement that’s widely applauded or criticized, depending on the policy. Later, it emerges that the president might actually want to do something else.

The latest example: a fresh round of sanctions against Russia for its role in enabling the recent Syrian chemical-weapons attack, specifically against companies that the U.S. says have facilitated Syria’s chemical-weapons program. The past few days have seen the UN ambassador announce new sanctions, only to be undercut 24 hours later, in two different ways, by the White House—with the press secretary saying Trump was still considering them, and an anonymous official saying he has in fact decided against them. The messaging confusion is not unusual for this White House, but it is also telling about the perilously complicated Syrian battlefield and the risks of escalation with the actors involved, Russia key among them.

On Sunday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told CBS’s Face the Nation that “Russian sanctions will be coming down” on Monday, adding Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, would announce them. She said the sanctions would target Russian “companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use.” The measure was meant to complement the U.S.-led airstrikes last Friday against Syrian facilities tied to its chemical-weapons program. But on Monday, the administration was saying something else. The Washington Post cited several anonymous officials as saying Trump was not comfortable executing the plan yet—and the newspaper described the strategy as being in a “holding pattern” while Trump considered. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said later in a statement: “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future.” But The New York Times later quoted an unnamed official as saying the president had decided against moving forward with the measures. In the words of the Times, Trump decided they were “unnecessary” since Moscow had responded to the U.S.-led strikes in Syria merely with “bluster.”

Haley’s remarks should not have been surprising. The U.S., Britain, and France had just struck Syrian regime targets in retaliation for the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. And Trump had publicly singled out Assad’s allies for culpability as well, declaring that Russia and Iran would pay a “big price” for supporting him. Sanctions would be another tool aimed at constraining Assad’s chemical-weapons program, in addition to the limited strikes in Syria that, the Pentagon acknowledged, did not destroy those capabilities entirely.

The incident fits a pattern of reports that members of the Trump administration differed on how strongly to respond to Assad’s alleged chemical-weapons attack, especially given the presence of Russian and Iranian assets on the battlefield and the risk of sparking a broader conflict. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Haley had wanted a more forceful response than the limited strikes ultimately chosen, while Defense Secretary James Mattis “warned about the risks that a more expansive strike could trigger a dangerous response from Moscow and Tehran,” according to the paper.

Indeed, Haley has been one of the most vocal Russia hawks in the Trump administration. She has challenged her Russian counterpart at the UN on Moscow’s actions in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere. But she is also known to be close to Trump, and not prone to public missteps. As the Post reported, “Haley is one of the most disciplined and cautious members of the Cabinet, especially when it comes to her public appearances. She regularly checks in with Trump personally to go over her planned statements before she sits for television interviews.” In other words, she is not in the habit of making policy without authorization.

Although the public turnaround is unusual, the manner of the internal battles over policy is not. The fighting during the Bush years in the lead-up to the Iraq war was often vicious. The Obama team agonized over what to do in Syria, with many of the president’s advisersand the president himself at one point—supporting military intervention against Assad, though the president ultimately demurred. But rarely are internal debates played out so frequently in public, and with as many leaks, as they are in the current White House. Policy disagreements among advisers have spilled into public view on issues like North Korea, Qatar, international commitments, U.S. military commitments, trade, and, of course, Russia.

Yet the administration has been tough on Russia in other contexts, and relations between Russia and the U.S. are now at their worst point since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. and Russia have clashed over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, especially the annexation of Crimea in December 2014; its support of the Assad regime in Syria; its interference in the U.S. presidential elections, as well as elections elsewhere; and, most recently, the accusation, which Russia denies, that Russian operatives used a nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K.

The U.S. and its allies have retaliated with repeated sanctions, in addition to Obama-era sanctions related to Crimea. The Trump administration has levied restrictions against against members of the Russian security establishment, hackers, propagandists, certain state-owned enterprises, and figures close to Putin.

Earlier this month, for instance, the U.S. announced sanctions against 38 Russian individuals and companies, including seven oligarchs close to Putin, for “the Russian government’s ongoing and increasingly brazen patterns of malign activity around the world.” Late last month, the U.S. and more than 20 Western countries expelled over 150 Russian diplomats—Moscow expelled an equal number of diplomats from each of the countries involved in the action—over the assassination attempt on the former spy and his daughter. Late last year, the Treasury Department said it was adding five Russians to a list of those sanctioned by the Magnitsky Act, which forbids transactions between those sanctioned and Americans. In March 2017, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against eight Russian companies for allegedly aiding Iran and North Korea with their weapons programs, which are under international sanctions.

In many cases, it’s been unclear whether these moves have the backing of the president himself, however. Trump has repeatedly called for better relations with Russia, praised Putin personally, and said last month he hoped they’d meet soon. Even on those occasions when he has criticized Russia, as he did last week on Twitter while signaling the strikes that would come in Syria, Trump blamed “much of bad blood [on] … the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama.”

As to the sanctions announcement that never was, Sanders told reporters: “The president has been clear that he’s going to be tough on Russia, but at the same time he’d still like to have a good relationship with them.”