Not more than two weeks into the Trump Administration, the United States quietly took the first step towards softening economic sanctions against Russia. On February 2nd, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a new general license that modified a provision in the retaliatory sanctions bundle imposed by President Obama last December for the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Unsurprisingly, the move was met with Kremlin praise and resulted in confusion and controversy in Washington. The White House’s explanation for the ease was far from clarifying. A healthy dose of critical skepticism is in order.
White House Spokesperson Sean Spicer emphatically stated that the Trump Administration is “not easing sanctions” and described OFAC’s move as a “common practice.” So what exactly did the general license change? According to shallow analysis, not much. OFAC’s adjustment lifted the prohibition of U.S. citizens and companies from doing business with the Russian Federation’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Russian trade policy requires foreign imports of products using encryption technology (such as smartphones and other tech products) to be processed by the FSB. American technology exporters looking to sell to the Russian market must therefore purchase annual licenses from the FSB, which cost $5,000. Under the last round of Obama sanctions, those transactions became prohibited. The OFAC’s new general license ended the prohibition, resuming business as usual. The real question is whether or not that was an advisable move given the current state of relations between Russia and the United States.
The justification of all the OFAC officials with whom my colleagues have spoken is that the sanction softening was intended to fix an “unintended consequence” from the last sanctions imposed by Obama in December 2016. They state that it is normal for U.S. businesses to export these products and technologies to the Russian market and that Obama never intended to prohibit such trade. While the first point is accurate, how does OFAC know Obama’s true intentions when he broke the character of his foreign policy in major ways before leaving office?
The problem with OFAC’s offered explanation is that it assumes Obama unintentionally prohibited U.S. businesses from working with the FSB. Given Obama’s historic attitude towards Russia and his intentions behind his last sanctions, it is completely within the realm of possibility that Obama deliberately barred U.S. citizens from doing business with the FSB.
Remarkably, the December sanctions bundle was distinctively one of the harshest measures ever taken by the Obama Administration against Russia. It included executive actions that declared persona non grata 35 Russian “diplomats” and shut down a Russian “diplomatic compound” / SIGINT safe house in Maryland that had been in operation for decades. This level of deliberate hawkishness was anything but typical for Obama, who historically was soft on Russia. During my time working in the 113th Congress, I distinctly remember having to fight the Obama Administration at every turn to increase American support to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine. At the time Congress’ frustration with the executive wasn’t confined to partisan politics, either, as leaders on both sides of the aisle urged President Obama to take stronger steps to curb the Kremlin.
Obama was a dove, and December’s harsh sanctions were completely atypical of his foreign policy. It seems that in light of Democrats’ humiliating defeat at the polls and Russia’s role in assisting Donald Trump’s victory, Obama may have finally found a motive to bring the hammer down on Moscow. Obama thus broke his characteristic passive role and announced the severe executive actions against Russia, among them the sanction banning American business transactions with the FSB.
Make no mistake, Obama’s final sanctions were intended as an austere retaliatory measure to levy economic pressure on Russia as a rebuke for its interference in our election and violent interventions in Syria and Ukraine. If this meant prohibiting U.S. technology exports from being processed by the FSB at the expense of Russian consumers, so be it. The response, while harsh, definitely was warranted. Is it possible that for once in his life Obama, as a lame duck President with nothing to lose, at the most politically opportune moment decided to toughen up on Russia? Russia has long been pushing the limits of what the U.S. will tolerate, and the December sanctions found support with Republican and Democrat legislators alike. Trump’s Kremlin-approved victory was Obama’s “better late than never” moment.
Speculation about Obama’s intentions aside, the Trump Administration’s justification for resuming transactions with the FSB is questionable, at best. Evidence suggests that Trump’s Russian sanction rollback has been in the works for a while, as just the other month our then soon-to-be Secretary of State was aggressively lobbying against Russian sanctions. Obama was rightly criticized by both parties for not pursuing a stronger American response to the Kremlin’s aggressive advancement of its foreign policy objectives, and Trump should be held to the same standard. Even if Obama’s FSB block was unintentional, it was nonetheless a reasonable and appropriate response that warrants support.
For those unfamiliar with the FSB, allow me to explain why the United States has no business working with it. As the successor of the KGB, the FSB is a sinister secret service that has no reservations about assassinating Putin’s political rivals or killing Russian citizens. Kremlin defectors and FSB whistleblowers, such as Alexander Litvinenko, frequently die in mysterious circumstances. Simply put, the FSB and other Russian intelligence services are no friends of the United States or her values. On moral grounds, barring U.S. business with Russia’s brutal secret police is more than justified. I see no compelling reason why the United States should do business with the agencies tasked with executing Putin’s dirty work.
In addition to the moral dilemma associated with doing business with Kremlin killers, the sanction ease quickly following Trump’s inauguration was a Kremlin propaganda victory. Russian Duma Members in Moscow were bragging about the sanction changes hours before U.S. congressional leaders were notified. According to Foreign Policy, Duma member and former FSB Director Nikolai Kovalyov praised the move as “the beginning of a rapprochement between Russia and the United States. ‘This shows that actual joint work on establishing an anti-terrorism coalition is about to begin,’ Kovalyov told the TASS news agency. ‘This is the first step on the way leading to cooperation in the war on terror.’” American foreign policy and national security analysts’ ears should prick with skepticism at the sound of the “U.S.-Russia anti-terror coalition” narrative because Russia has no real interest in combating Islamic extremism. This narrative is a product of Kremlin active measures, Russian intelligence services’ notoriously effective mixture of gray propaganda, disinformation, and provocation, specially designed to influence foreign audiences and their politics. Furthermore, if a former FSB director is praising the move, we should naturally be inclined to be extremely skeptical.
I expect the Trump Administration to adopt new foreign policies, especially with regards to Moscow. These controversial decisions will be announced slowly over the next months to minimize media scrutiny and maximize defensibility. Trump Administration officials and pro-Kremlin pundits will echo the language used to defend OFAC’s move: they will argue that these changes are normal, that everything is fine, and that they do not constitute an easing of sanctions. In reality they do, and they will. But don’t take my word for it. Members of Putin’s inner circle publically agree. Moscow already expects American sanctions will be removed slowly and incrementally, boiling frog style.
This is why I find the “normal and uncontroversial” FSB sanction ease deeply disconcerting. While the highly technical sanction adjustment may seem small and uncontroversial, it marks the first step of many that the Trump Administration will employ in a strategic gradual rollback of sanctions. We should not throw American allies under the bus and cede our principles for the sake of being friendly with Putin. Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria is unacceptable. Russian efforts to undermine the rules-based international order and influence American politics should not be rewarded with détente. Rapprochement with Russia should be done reluctantly and only in strict accordance with U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives.
As an American, I was deeply distressed when Trump recently undermined the notion of American exceptionalism in defense of Putin’s murderous tendencies. In reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, President Ronald Reagan praised America’s unique role as a global force for good by describing our republic as a “shining city upon a hill.” By reciting a Kremlin whataboutism, President Donald Trump insinuated that America has a moral equivalence with Putin’s Russia because, “[America’s] got a lot of killers.” Trump’s comment undermines America’s role as the leader of the free world, and it seems that his administration’s actions on sanctions may soon follow suit. Allow me to not mince words. Putin is not an American ally, there is no moral equivalence between the United States and Putin’s Russia, and Putin should not experience sanction relief without making concessions. Most importantly, the United States should remain unwaveringly committed to her long-held principles. Whether the FSB sanction ease was intentionally planned or not, it sent a very wrong signal, especially when Eastern Ukraine is in flames again.
George Barros is a Washington-based analyst who concentrates on Ukraine and Russia. He previously worked as a foreign policy advisor for a former member of Congress who served on the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats. You can find him on Twitter at @curiousgeorgie_
Photo Credit: By Vsevolod Georgobiani, via Flickr.
 Latin for “an unwelcomed person.” The declaration of a diplomat as persona non grata is a diplomatic tool afforded to all nations by the Article 9 of the Vienna Convention which permits any nation, for any reason and without explanation, to expel foreign diplomatic staff from the host country.