New sanctions inflict further damage on U.S.-Russia relations

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the G20 Summit, 2012. Source: AP

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the G20 Summit, 2012. Source: AP

As the U.S. hits Russia with fresh sanctions targeting arms and aircraft manufacturers, experts are speaking of a further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations, but continue to believe that there is still room for cooperation.

As the war of words between Russia and the West continues to simmer, the United States is tightening the sanctions pressure on Russia, with Washington justifying a set of new restrictions not only with the crisis in Ukraine, but also the issue of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

On Sept. 2, Washington announced the extension of the sanctions list drawn up to punish Russia for what is widely seen as its illegal annexation of Crimea and its fomenting of a conflict between pro-autonomy rebels and government forces in eastern Ukraine.

As part of the latest round of economic measures, another five Russian companies were placed on the sanctions list – on charges of violating the U.S. law on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in relation to third countries.

The new sanctions, aimed against the alleged transfer of missile technology to Iran, Syria and North Korea, have hit major representatives of the Russian defense industry, manufacturers of missiles and aircraft. Observers wonder why these companies are being persecuted only now, when they have long been suspected of violating the non-proliferation regime.

“The introduction of new sanctions against Russian companies is a continuation of the strategic line of the United States for the worsening of relations with our country,” Frants Klintsevich, a member of the Duma Committee on Defense, told the international news agency Rossiya Segodnya, saying that references to links between some of these companies to Iran, North Korea and Syria were “literally far-fetched.”


Sanctions not sign of ‘anti-Russian’ policy

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, new individuals and legal entities have been included on the list because information on them has appeared only now. Nevertheless, a number of experts see the current widening of the sanctions as part of a long-term policy by Washington against Russia and its interests.

“There are still at least two reasons to explain the decisions taken,” said Igor Istomin, a senior lecturer at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

“Firstly, sanctions against Russia were extended today by the EU. The parallel actions of Washington at this time may be seen as a step to support its allies. Secondly, in the light of the recent scandal around the issue of the visa to Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko [Matviyenko called off a trip to New York after being issued a visa for only three days – RBTH], the stage is being set for a wider diplomatic confrontation between Russia and the United States.”

However, Thomas Volgy, professor of political science at the University of Arizona, told RBTH that the sanctions were not “anti-Russian” per se and should be seen for what they are – punitive measures for Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

“Today’s actions are a continuation of the overall sanctions policy of the EU and the U.S. in relation to Russia, which is continuing its activity in Ukraine. They do not have to be considered as a new anti-Russian policy,” he said.


Russia not a serious threat to the U.S.

Volgy disagrees that Russia should be considered one of the chief dangers to the United States in today’s world.

“There are a number of significant threats to U.S. security, including international terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, as well as a number of states, primarily Iran and North Korea,” he said.

“Russia, which made the list because of its actions in Ukraine and activity on the borders with NATO in Europe, is in fact not the highest type of threat represented by others on the list.”

According to David Speedie, director of the Carnegie Council's program on U.S. Global Engagement, the current anti-Russian rhetoric is “actually worse than in the most intense days of the Cold War.”

“The saddest aspect of this situation is the use of verbal exaggerations toward Russia by the Obama administration as well as the inappropriate depiction of President Putin in the American media,” he told RBTH.


Hope for better relations?

Answering the question of whether there is hope for the improvement of Russian-American relations in the near future, Thomas Volgy was optimistic, pointing to the conclusion of the agreement on the nuclear program of Iran.

According to David Speedie, in order for bilateral relations to be strengthened, it is essential for the parties to resume high-level dialogue “on military exercises in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, as well as on Ukraine, where the Minsk Agreement should be reviewed and strengthened.”

However, Igor Istomin feels that the picture is not quite as black as many are painting it, and points to areas where cooperation between Russia and the U.S. has borne fruit over the last year or so.

“We should not overestimate the depth of the crisis in relations between Moscow and Washington – yes, both sides use extremely harsh rhetoric, and they are trying to trip each other up, but on important issues where their interests coincide, they surprisingly retain the ability to negotiate. This is reflected in the Iranian track, and Syria, and many others. So, we do not have a total, all-encompassing confrontation,” he said.

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