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Trump’s new Russia sanctions show his rift with Putin is widening

Trump’s long-desired goal of improving ties with Russia is receding ever further into the distance.

Trump’s new sanctions against Russian oligarchs is going to make it harder to improve ties with Putin.
Trump’s new sanctions against Russian oligarchs is going to make it harder for him to improve ties with Putin.

The Trump administration just announced an aggressive package of sanctions against Russian politicians, oligarchs, and companies on Friday, citing Moscow’s “malign activity around the globe.”

The sweeping language justifying the sanctions, and the fact that the penalties squarely target key members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, is likely to further widen a growing rift between Trump and Moscow.

The new sanctions target seven of the richest men in Russia, 12 companies they own or control, and 17 Russian government officials. They also hit a state-owned Russian weapons trading company and its subsidiary, a Russian bank.

The sanctions freeze any US assets that belong to the people and organizations that are being targeted, and bans Americans from doing any business with them. The Treasury Department’s announcement also threatens to penalize people outside the US for “knowingly facilitating significant transactions for on behalf of them” — a move intended to discourage banks or companies around the world from doing business with them.

A number of the oligarchs hit by the sanctions are major players in Russia’s hugely important energy sector and are known to have ties to Putin, like Igor Rotenberg and Kirill Shamalov.

Experts say that pressuring Russian oligarchs financially could lead to policy change in the Kremlin. They might start to say to Putin that his aggressive foreign policy isn’t worth the financial pain that they and the Russian economy more broadly are having to endure because of it.

These sanctions show that Trump and Russia are moving further apart

What’s striking about the Trump administration’s announcement is that it doesn’t frame these sanctions as a response to any specific recent Russian misdeed, such as its suspected role in the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal on British soil in March.

Instead, it paints them as a broad response to basically everything the US dislikes about Russia’s conduct in the global arena, including its involvement in Ukraine and Syria, its meddling in the political process in Western democracies, and its hacking operations more generally.

It then argues that the beneficiaries of Russian corruption need to be punished for it.

“The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities.”

The fact that the sanctions aren’t being presented as a very specific response to one Russian activity signals a broad disconnect between Washington and Moscow. It’s not an instance of Trump feeling obligated to slap Putin on the wrist for doing a particular thing that hurts US interests or Trump catering to allies asking for US solidarity against Russian meddling.

Instead, this is the US acting on its own and stating that it and Russia have fundamentally clashing worldviews. And it means that Trump’s long-desired goal of improving ties with Russia is receding ever further into the distance.

The new sanctions come atop other hard-hitting actions against Russia in recent months. On March 26, Trump announced he would expel 60 Russian intelligence officers from the United States and close the Russian Consulate in Seattle in response to the poisoning of Skripal.

While that action was coordinated with European allies, it was another instance of Trump taking a notably tough stance against Moscow, since the administration kicked out a much larger number of Russian diplomats than allies did.

In other words, Trump went above and beyond what he needed to do to send a message to Russia.