Donald Trump has made clear from the start of his presidency that warming US–Russia relations is a top priority for his administration. But on Friday he discovered that even the most modest, piecemeal attempts at resetting the relationship are fraught with obstacles.
New sanctions against Moscow passed in Congress on Thursday, followed by the Kremlin’s retaliatory seizure of two US buildings in Russia on Friday, have all but scuttled his administration’s efforts at achieving even the most basic confidence-building measures.
For weeks, Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has promoted bilateral talks between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and the number-three official at the State Department, Tom Shannon, to discuss ending the harassment of US diplomats in Moscow, approving the construction of a new US consulate in St. Petersburg, and returning two Russian diplomatic compounds the US seized in 2016.
The legislation, passed by the Senate in a veto-proof 98–2 vote on Thursday, handcuffs the president from returning the compounds to Moscow, and from lifting the much more politically sensitive sanctions against Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine, without sending the proposal to Congress for review.
The overwhelming Republican support for the legislation represents a stunning move by the president’s own party to limit his maneuverability with the Russians, and leaves the Shannon–Ryabkov talks on ice.
“A deal for the compounds has become politically impossible in the short-term,” said John Herbst, a director at the Atlantic Council and a former career foreign service officer. “The Trump administration will have to demonstrate that it’s getting a good value for what it gives.”
Exactly how the State Department plans to move forward with the talks remains unclear. Foggy Bottom has kept quiet following Russia’s Friday announcement, which suspended the use of all US Embassy warehouses in Moscow and a US compound in the pine forests of the Serebryany Bor park, and demanded a reduction in the number of US diplomatic and technical staff to 455 — the number to which the US reduced Russia’s staff in response to allegations of interference in the US election.
“We have received the Russian government notification,” a State Department official told BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity. “[US Ambassador to Russia John] Tefft expressed his strong disappointment and protest.”
Trump could still decide to veto the legislation, but the bad political optics and likelihood of a veto override create a strong disincentive. The bill has the overwhelming support of both parties in Congress, despite strong objections in Europe that the sanctions could target companies that are financing a pipeline carrying natural gas from Russia to Germany. The only two dissenting votes in the Senate came from independent Bernie Sanders and Republican Rand Paul. The House passed the bill by a margin of 419–3.
"They can count. They understand math. I just can't imagine they're considering doing so,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on Thursday when asked about a presidential veto.
Still, White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci left the door open to a veto during an interview with CNN on Thursday. "He may sign the sanctions exactly the way they are, or he may veto the sanctions and negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians,” he said.
The president has 10 days to sign a bill passed by Congress. When asked if the State Department would seek to rush along negotiations between Shannon and Ryabkov prior to the legislation’s signing, a US official ruled that scenario out. A second official confirmed that the two sides haven’t come to any agreement on the list of low-level irritants in the US–Russia relationship.
“No agreements on areas of bilateral concern have been reached yet,” the official said.
The dim hope of Moscow getting its compounds back likely prompted the Kremlin to move forward on the retaliatory steps they had been threatening for weeks.
Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday that the US sanctions eliminated any opportunity to improve ties between Moscow and Washington.
"This is already having an extremely negative impact on the process of normalizing our relations," he said, noting that US–Russia relations had entered "uncharted territory in a political and diplomatic sense.”
For many in Congress, the fact that the State Department was even considering giving the compounds back following Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election was beyond the pale.
“These sanctions are meant to punish Russia for its actions, but also to send a strong bipartisan message against any short-sighted deals that do not take into account our national security interests,” Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen told BuzzFeed News.
Herbst said the negotiations should never have been approved from the outset. “It is foolish for Trump to be seeking an improved relationship with Moscow right off the bat because Moscow is pursuing policies that go against American interests,” he said.
But some Europe and Russia analysts say the modest scope of the Shannon–Ryabkov negotiations was defensible given the objective of resolving smaller sticking points with the goal of working more productively on issues of more significant geopolitical import.
“It was wise for the Trump administration to seek to resolve irritants in the relationship,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama administration official and research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The US-Russia relationship is bad and getting worse. This is obviously dangerous for both sides and the world, and ever more so for those countries stuck on the wrong end of US-Russian proxy disputes, such as Ukraine and Syria.”
“Under such potentially tragic circumstances, it makes some sense to try to slowly build confidence rather than to simply submit to an inevitable cycle of misperception and conflict,” he added.
Interestingly, one prominent Russia expert who has long doubted the prospects of a US–Russia rapprochement is currently one of Donald Trump’s top Russia advisers. Fiona Hill, the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, said no one should expect a sharp upturn in the bilateral relationship in an interview with The Atlantic before being selected for the job. “The Russians will get all giddy with expectations, and then they’ll be dashed, like, five minutes into the relationship because the U.S. and Russia just have a very hard time … being on the same page,” she said in November.
Though her prediction appears to be coming true, the result could produce an incredibly volatile situation, said Heather Conley, a Russia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I believe we are now watching the Kremlin begin its reset of its relations with the Trump administration,” she said. “This is where the bilateral dynamic becomes more dangerous as there is no overarching U.S. policy in which the sanctions are a tool to guide the relationship to a more stable, rules-based path if that is possible.”