Skip to content
Breaking News Alert It Could Soon Be Illegal For California Teachers To Tell Parents About Kids' Trans Confusion

The 1980s Called, And They Want Their Russia Sanctions Back


One unfortunate outgrowth of the way the United States formulates its national security policy is the tendency to view the “battle” in Washington as the centerpiece, with the actual foreign policy effects relegated to a sideline. The debate over whether to institutionalize (and increase) sanctions on Russia has followed this pattern, with Congress’s passage of legislation over the objections of President Donald Trump viewed primarily as a domestic political “humiliating rebuke” to the administration rather than as a step that has significant foreign policy implications to the United States.

Many seem to view the heavy lifting as over and done, with all that remains to count the days until Vladimir Putin is ousted from power and Russia meekly withdraws its forces from Ukraine and Syria. In contrast to the years of careful preparation and negotiation with other key partners over the Iran sanctions, which the latest legislation took as a template, the expanded Russia sanctions have come at a low point in U.S. relations with its allies and an increased lack of trust in American leadership, calling into question how effective they will be in the absence of a new trans-Atlantic (and trans-Pacific) consensus on how to move forward.

The gamble of Congress’s approach is that the United States can put back together the coalition of states it assembled to defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The problem is that, despite all the nostalgia for the 1980s—and the consistent slips by many U.S. officials who still refer to the “Soviet Union”—we aren’t living in 1985. The Russian Federation of 2017 is a smaller and weaker state than its Soviet predecessor, but paradoxically that also makes the Moscow of today far less threatening to a number of key countries than it was 30 years ago, even if a post-Soviet Russia is still the biggest kid on the immediate Eurasian block. That has important geopolitical ramifications.

Alienating Russia Is Good for China

For one thing, the Soviet threat was perhaps the biggest factor inducing the People’s Republic of China to avoid creating problems with the United States and its allies. China has always claimed extensive maritime zones in the South and East China Seas; the difference was that when the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to Beijing, the Chinese leadership was not particularly interested in ginning up problems with Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian states over disputed islands and the Nine-Dash Line.

Today, China no longer fears that a post-Soviet Russia poses a threat to its ascendancy in East Asia, and is more interested in preventing Moscow from becoming part of an encircling coalition of states. As much as many American analysts deride the Obama administration’s effort to “reset” relations with Russia as a failure, it did create heartburn in Beijing because of the prospects that Moscow might develop a closer partnership with Washington.

U.S. sanctions, in contrast, are welcomed by China. Not only does it drive Russia closer to China, it guarantees that China’s northern and western frontiers are safeguarded, while any U.S. pivot back to Europe to deal with a resurging Russia takes away from the American rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.

Seeing all of this, Japan is also not enthusiastic about new U.S. sanctions. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the principal threat to Japan; today, Russia is seen as a necessary counterbalance in northeast Asia. Japanese geoeconomic strategy calls for investment in the Russian Far East to harvest resources Japan needs for its economy (and to prevent them from all going southward to China) and to give Moscow options so as not to be driven into any shotgun marriage with Beijing.

Japan reluctantly joined its G-7 partners to impose initial sanctions on Russia after its activities in Ukraine but is not interested in ceding an economic relationship with Moscow to the Chinese, especially if, as the Russian government continues to dangle in front of Tokyo, there could be a settlement of the territorial disputes between the two nations over the Kuril Islands.

Russia’s Position in the Middle East Has Shifted

In 1985, the Soviet Union did not have diplomatic relations with Israel and was the purveyor both of Marxist revolution and militant atheism, two ideologies absolutely anathema to the Saudi Arabian monarchy. Today, Russia has a de facto strategic partnership with Israel and its conservative religiosity at home and denunciation of democracy promotion abroad are music to the ears of the dynasts of the House of Al-Saud. Both see Moscow as an important restraining force on the impetuousness of the Islamic Republic of Iran and as the likely guarantor of any Syria settlement.

The Saudis already had their bout of ’80s nostalgia when the previous government, in consultation with the United States, tried to flood global markets with oil at the end of 2014 in an effort to put economic pressure on a Russia assumed to be addicted to high energy prices to fuel its foreign policy. The end result boomeranged on the Saudis, who watched their own coffers shrink. Today, the Moscow-Riyadh axis, coordinated by the new crown prince, is attempting to stabilize world energy prices and to solidify a price “floor” that can guarantee minimum levels of revenue to both governments’ treasuries.

The Turkish Republic in 1985 saw the Soviet Union as an implacable foe and viewed itself as the easternmost bastion of the Euro-Atlantic world. A more Islamic-flavored Turkey today is less inclined to see itself as the beachhead of a Western world which itself is ambivalent about Turkey’s membership, while a geographically reduced Russia opens the possibility for a more equal partnership between Ankara and Moscow.

The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets no lectures on democracy from Putin, while Turkish business is bedazzled by the prospect of their country becoming one of the world’s leading transit countries for energy—and eager to take away revenues from Ukraine, in keeping with Moscow’s stated goal of stopping all energy exports via Ukraine within two years. The Turkish military, already transformed by years of AKP Party governance, is less reflexively pro-American and more willing to work with Russia on good old-fashioned spheres of influence in Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

Europe Is Less Afraid of Russia Now

The biggest change, of course, is in Europe. Thirty years ago, even far-off states like Portugal or Iceland were concerned about Soviet intentions. Today, there is a direct correlation between how close a country borders to Russia and its perception of threat. Ukraine may face an existential threat from Russia, and countries like Latvia or Georgia must contemplate the prospect of Russian domination of their affairs, but Germans, Dutch, and Belgians aren’t living under the shadow of a mad dash of Red Army tank divisions through the Fulda Gap to the English Channel.

Indeed, west of the Oder-Neisse line, there may be disgust with how the Russians conduct their affairs and annoyance at Moscow’s policies and actions (especially in Ukraine and Syria), but not a great deal of existential angst. At the same time, European solidarity is under strain, complicating the argument that if one European state has a problem with Moscow it becomes a problem for every European state.

At the same time, for many European companies, Russia is an important market and a critical source of energy and raw materials. Germany, for the last several years, has articulated a rationale for existing sanctions on Russia: exacting penalties for its transgressions in Ukraine, but not designed to provoke economic collapse in Russia itself or to create unnecessary hardships in Europe—with the hope that at some point, a more productive Europe-Russia partnership can be restored. The latest U.S. sanctions are viewed with considerable distrust in some European capitals and boardrooms, as less motivated by defending principles of international law and more about promoting U.S. economic interests.

This Is Why the World Doesn’t Take Us Seriously

Thus, while the United States has tightened up its sanctions, others are looking for new loopholes. A Japanese consortium looking to drill in the waters of the Russian Far East is calculating where wells can be sited that will avoid triggering the sanctions restrictions on “deepwater” activities (if deepwater is defined as 150 meters or more). Norway’s Statoil takes European bans on cooperation with the Russians on shale oil literally, as prohibiting oil obtained from shale formations, not unconventional oil found in limestone deposits.

Germany, Italy, and other countries are willing to consider “national interest” waivers for their companies to move ahead with Russian energy projects. One German interlocutor once remarked to me that Berlin could take America’s protestations more seriously if and when the United States ever imposed serious sanctions on Saudi Arabia for its human rights violations. I have heard echoes of this view of Russia as “Europe’s Saudi Arabia” in other trans-Atlantic dialogues as well.

None of this suggests that there is much enthusiasm among America’s closest partners for stricter economic restrictions on Moscow, and Congress does not show much interest in trying to incentivize other states to go along with our plans (for instance, subsidizing U.S. shale gas to make it more competitive with Russian pipeline gas).

The next several months will prove to be very interesting indeed. A Trump administration that is unenthusiastic about the new congressional mandates will have to negotiate with allies and friends who are themselves unenthused about further ruptures in their relations with Russia. It doesn’t sound like a great deal.