News Americas, NEW YORK, NY, Fri. Dec. 23, 2016: I have been watching and waiting to see what action President Barack Obama would take against Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and critical sectors of the Russian economy in response to Putin’s interference into the U.S. presidential elections. As President Obama said in his final press conference on December 16, 2016, there would be responses that are known to the public and there would be responses not disclosed publicly. Most observers seemed to anticipate that the U.S. president would wait for the Intelligence Community’s (IC) report which he ordered to be completed and made public before he would take action against Russia.
Not President Obama! As I have said before, he is no “lame duck” and because his days are numbered as president he will act as and when he deems prudent; he will not delay. He already has the IC’s report which with “highest confidence” concluded that Russia directed the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager’s emails and directed how WikiLeaks made them public. In addition, the entire IC concluded that Russia’s intent was to affect the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.
One thing for sure, President Obama is making it increasingly difficult for Donald Trump to roll back U.S. sanctions against Putin’s inner circle and against Russian businesses. Announcement by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on December 20, 2016 of action to impose sanctions on a new set of Russian individuals and business entities should not have been entirely unexpected. President Obama is known for his deliberative actions; for acting in a manner that is based on sound intelligence and actions that achieve well-considered objectives. This has been the hallmark of his presidency and we should not expect anything less during his final month.
In addition to the sanctions already imposed against Russian financial, energy, and defense sectors, as well as members of Putin’s inner circle, the new sanctions target seven new individuals, six Russian institutions, Crimea ports and railroad, two Russian flagged vessels (the first cargo vessels designated under the Russian/Ukraine sanctions), and 26 additional Russian entities across various sectors of Russia’s economy. It is expected that President Obama will add new sanctions before he leaves office, in particular, as a direct response to Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential elections.
Donald Trump has made it clear he wants to have a close working relationship with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Similarly, Putin no doubt has expectations that Trump will deliver on his “promises” to change U.S.-Russia relations. Through his nomination of Rex Tillerson to be his Secretary of State and retired Lt. General Michael Flynt as his National Security Adviser, both with well-known connections to Russia and Putin, Trump has signaled to Putin that he wants to play ball with him; perhaps on the same team.
There is no question Donald Trump’s presidency will be challenged to deal with the sanctions against Russia that have been imposed by the Republican Congress and President Obama. The broader the net of these sanctions imposed prior to his swearing in, the greater will be his dilemma. No doubt, removing these sanctions will be atop Putin’s agenda. Only the U.S Congress can remove the Russian sanctions. Perhaps Putin is betting that Trump will have sway over his Republican Party’s legislators in control of the Congress. President Obama is making it difficult for Trump. A showdown between Trump and the Congress is in the cards.
Although many of the Republicans in Congress have not demonstrated much spine in standing up to Trump’s bigotry and divisive rhetoric, so far, I wouldn’t bet on acquiescence on lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia. There are some Republicans in Congress, albeit a declining number, who literally hates Putin and Russia and they will not agree to the lifting of the Russian sanctions.
Where does that leave Trump? The process for designating the sanctions targets, that is naming the individuals and entities that are subject to the sanctions measures, is led by the Secretary of the Treasury in consultation with the Secretary of State. By the same token the process for removing these sanctioned individuals and entities from the Specially Designated Nationals and Entities (SDN) List involves consultation between the Secretaries of State and Treasury. With Tillerson at State and Trump’s apparent closeness to Putin, the only conclusion to be expected is a process of de-listing according to Putin’s wishes. Putin wants removal of U.S. sanctions against members of his inner circle and Russian companies that are critical to the country’s economy – financial, energy, and military-related entities currently subject to U.S. sanctions.
There is nothing in the background of either of the nominees for Secretaries of Treasury and State to believe they wouldn’t be willing to remove these individuals and entities from the SDN List. They do not need Congressional authority to do so. But, they will have to justify their proposed de-listing actions to the Congress prior to removing Russian sanctioned individuals and entities from the SDN List.
Bear in mind, most of these sanctions were imposed by both the U.S. and the European Union because of Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and Putin’s support of Ukrainian secessionists. In order for Congress to agree with the Trump administration to remove these sanctions the unthinkable would have to occur – Putin abandoning his annexation of Ukraine and ending support for the Ukrainian secessionists. No such chance!
What will an angry Putin do? He will not hesitate to use whatever tools he has available to him to pressure Donald Trump. He has already demonstrated Russia’s capacity to hack into U.S. entities. One has to wonder whether Russia has already hacked into the records of the Internal Revenue Service. It is not so far-fetched. And, if he hasn’t already, would the IRS be his next target? For now, it is merely what if. We are in for interesting even difficult times. The Russian tools may surprise us. Stay tuned.
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward, B.A., J.D., LL.M., is an attorney and international consultant, and Adjunct Professor in the Homeland Security Graduate Program at the University of the District of Columbia. As former Ambassador of Jamaica to the United Nations he served two years on the U.N. Security Council. He was Expert Adviser to the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee for three years. He specializes in terrorism/counterterrorism legal and policy frameworks; anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT); sanctions implementation; crime and security; human rights, rule of law and governance.