Does Anyone Know What to Make of Obama's Sanctions?

The president’s move to punish Russia has scrambled partisan lines.

Jewel Samad / Getty

What is a bewildered citizen to make of the sanctions that President Obama levied on Russian officials and the Russian government on Thursday? The confusion starts with the news coverage. The Associated Press, for example, blares that “President Barack Obama has slapped harsh sanctions on the Russian intelligence services.” Meanwhile the former head of the CIA’s Russia operations tells The New York Times, “I think these sanctions are pretty weak. It’s more perhaps symbolic.” Some sloppy reports even suggested, wrongly, that Russian agents had interfered with vote counts or voting machines.

Trying to follow partisan cues won’t help either, as—in what is emerging as a hallmark of the Donald Trump era—the traditional alliances on foreign policy within and between the parties are scrambled and broken. Across party lines, various voices seem unable to decide whether to blame Russia for hacking that intelligence officials say was intended to interfere with the 2016 election, likely to aid Trump, nor on how to react appropriately to that hacking.

The president-elect himself issued a nebulous statement Thursday afternoon, which was evidently a response to Obama’s sanctions, though he did not make any explicit connection. “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said. “Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”

Like many Trump statements, this one raises as many questions as it answers. If it’s time to move on, why bother meeting? If it’s important, why has he waited so long? Why has he been declining so many intelligence briefings? Given that Trump has been briefed on the hacks, what might he hear that would induce him to change his mind?

On Friday, Trump tweeted more praise for Putin, apparently lauding him for not immediately retaliating after the sanctions, though his wording was unclear.

In any event, it is an example of the president-elect supporting a foreign autocrat over the U.S. government—an example of the reality that my colleague Uri Friedman identified last week, in which there are effectively dueling American presidents.

The reactions among Trump’s inner circle remain splintered too. Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser, dismissed the sanctions as “largely symbolic,” and said that Russian intelligence did not keep assets in the United States, a judgment that one national-security reporter openly mocked. (She at least may have the excuse of not being briefed, unlike her boss.)

On the other hand, John Bolton, whose name seems to have sunk somewhat in the sweepstakes for a Trump State Department appointment, who was seen just a couple weeks ago complaining that the intelligence was so shaky that the attack could well have been a false-flag operation, now says that Obama should have done much more to “make the Russians feel the pain.”

The Heritage Foundation, the conservative institution that has largely appended itself to the Trump team, produced a short video charging that Obama had invited the hacking by being too lenient with Russia:

“It’s time to deal with Russia from a position of strength,” the video concludes. Taking a similar position is Jack Kingston, a former U.S. representative and current Trump adviser, who tweeted, “Putin outplays Obama again. Obama embarrassing himself on the way out the door.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also portrayed Obama’s sanctions as too little and too late. “Sanctions against the Russian intelligence services are a good initial step, however late in coming," he said in a statement. "As the next Congress reviews Russian actions against networks associated with the U.S. election, we must also work to ensure that any attack against the United States is met with an overwhelming response.” (McConnell has been attempting a difficult dance—with one hand, pushing back on demands for a special committee to investigate the hack, while using the other to insist that despite what Trump says, the intelligence community is reliable.)

Most Republican members of Congress seem to be in McConnell’s general vicinity, and worried about the threat of foreign powers interfering with electoral processes. This creates a potential collision between them and the Trump administration early on, despite the best efforts of people like McConnell to build unity. After all, expressing concern over hacking and asking for an inquiry is diametrically opposed to Trump’s view that it probably wasn’t the Russians, and even if it was, it’s time to move on.

Some conservatives have spent the last eight years complaining that Obama has been too accommodating of Russia. But the reactions from Heritage, Bolton, McConnell, and others carry the implication that Trump will take a harder line. To call that expectation unsupported would be an understatement. The president-elect spent the presidential campaign promising friendlier relations with Russia; he suggested he would recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea; he nominated a vocal critic of sanctions on the Kremlin as a secretary of state; and so on.

Then there’s Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, who argues that maybe Russia is responsible, and maybe it’s not—but that if it is, that’s not such a bad thing.  “If Russia succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done,” Franks said on MSNBC Thursday. (He is not the only person to make this case.) It doesn’t take an advanced degree to see the problems with this statement. One can defend the press’s decision to cover the hacked material, and even celebrate the effects of the hacked material, without inviting foreign powers to hack into the emails of political leaders (or those of the nation’s top diplomat, as Trump did during the campaign).

Obama is indeed tardy to the role of hawk in Russo-American relations. But on the left, particularly, the farther left, there’s concern that he is saber-rattling. Glenn Greenwald points out that there’s a long history of American intelligence misleading both the public and elected officials, though Greenwald also believes the hacks should be fully investigated. The skepticism of intelligence sourcing is well-taken, though one question that looms over the debate is precisely what evidence would convince a doubter like Trump of Russian involvement, short of video footage of Putin himself writing malware. There’s growing consensus that evidence points to Russian actors in the hacks, although there is less public proof that they were intended to aid Trump. In any case, there’s no good argument to make against asking for stronger evidence, even if Trump’s allies keep trying to make one.

Not every critique is quite so carefully thought out:

This rather seems to be begging the question; if WikiLeaks did as alleged receive the DNC documents thanks to Russian state actors, then it has a unique source. Any news organization able to get its hands on Putin docs or RNC emails would almost certainly publish them. (Please! Send them here!)

The Nation, which has in recent years tended to view any criticism of Russia—including of its expansionist impulses—as a resurgence of McCarthyism, sees in this case yet another sign that there’s a new Cold War brewing. The dangers of nuclear war, and the malign effects on political discourse within the United States, are no less horrifying than they were 50 years ago. The specter of the U.S. expelling Russian officials as personae non grata on Thursday was straight out of the Cold War playbook of action and reaction, even if some commentators seemed to be unaware of the old spy-game ritual of allowing some suspected spies to stay in the country just so there was someone to throw out in a crisis.

But the rejection of any criticism of Russia has serious shortcomings. Labeling critiques of Putin’s Russia as nothing more than McCarthyism will come as little consolation to Russian dissidents being crushed by Putin. And what if it’s proven that Russia did hack to interfere with the election? Should these fears paralyze the United States and prevent it from responding?

Meanwhile, an entirely different faction on the left is arguing that Trump is all but (or maybe simply is) a bought-and-paid-for Kremlin agent.

The only person who seems to be enjoying all of this is Putin. If he did in fact direct the hacks in an attempt to help Trump, then it’s a huge win: Trump pulled off the upset, and now he gets a friendly leader in Washington. If he directed the hacks in order to create chaos among American policymakers, then he gets that too. And even if Russia was totally uninvolved, it benefits from all of these dynamics, and will still have a friendly leader in the White House come January 20. The disorder in Washington has given Putin the opportunity to pose as the serene statesman, regarding the scene with equanimity.

Putin announced that he would not expel any American diplomats, despite the public recommendation of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (This seems possibly choreographed.) He even invited the children of American diplomats to a bash at the Kremlin. It’s a well-executed troll.

Not for some time has Putin had such an opportunity to gloat. He’s also just managed to strike a cease-fire deal in Syria, at least as long as it holds. But Russia remains much diminished from its Cold War peak. Its economy is in shambles, a state of affairs likely to persist even if Trump removes sanctions, especially if the price of oil remains low.

Jeet Heer is not the first to point out (despite what he seems to believe) that the latest dust-up has a pedigree. Russia remains angry about U.S. moves to expand NATO into Eastern Europe in the years after the Soviet Union, and for its support of pro-democracy activists in Russia and other former Soviet republics, which it regards as financing efforts to overthrow governments. But successive U.S. presidents have entered office seeking better relations with the Kremlin. In June of 2001, George W. Bush met with the then-fresh Russian president and infamously declared, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straight-forward and trustworthy—I was able to get a sense of his soul.” But Bush came to infuriate Putin with American support of the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe in the mid-2000s, and at the very end of Bush’s term, Putin spited him by seizing Georgian territories.

Obama entered office promising better relations than his predecessor. He infamously dispatched then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to present a “reset” button to Lavrov. That effort came to naught, too, with Putin seizing Crimea, intervening on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and allegedly overseeing hacks to interfere with the election. Trump now says he is the one to shepherd closer relations. One possible takeaway from this sequence is not that the United States and Russia are on the brink of a new Cold War, but rather than the old one never really ended.