[Mark Safranski / “zen“]
A friend asked me to weight in on the response of Russian Prime Minister Medvedev to the signing by President Trump of the Russia sanctions bill passed by Congress. A translation of Medvedev’s remarks today:
“The US President’s signing of the package of new sanctions against Russia will have a few consequences. First, it ends hopes for improving our relations with the new US administration. Second, it is a declaration of a full-fledged economic war on Russia. Third, the Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way. This changes the power balance in US political circles.
What does it mean for them? The US establishment fully outwitted Trump; the President is not happy about the new sanctions, yet he could not but sign the bill. The issue of new sanctions came about, primarily, as another way to knock Trump down a peg. New steps are to come, and they will ultimately aim to remove him from power. A non-systemic player has to be removed. Meanwhile, the interests of the US business community are all but ignored, with politics chosen over a pragmatic approach. Anti-Russian hysteria has become a key part of both US foreign policy (which has occurred many times) and domestic policy (which is a novelty).
The sanctions regime has been codified and will remain in effect for decades unless a miracle happens. This legislation is going to be harsher than the Jackson-Vanik amendment as it is overarching and cannot be lifted by a special presidential order without Congress’ approval. Thus, relations between Russia and the United States are going to be extremely tense regardless of Congress’ makeup and regardless of who is president. Lengthy arguments in international bodies and courts are ahead, as well as rising international tensions and refusal to settle major international issues.
What does it mean for us? We will steadily continue our work on developing the economy and social sector, take efforts to substitute imports, and solve major national tasks, relying mostly on ourselves. We have learned to do so in the past few years, in conditions of almost closed financial markets as well as foreign investors’ and creditors’ fear of investing in Russia upon penalty of sanctions against third parties and countries. To some extent, this has even been to our advantage, although sanctions are meaningless overall. We will cope.”
My short take on this is that we are all watching a gambler or manipulator (President Putin not Medvedev) who has overplayed his hand and is now flailing about, trying to stir the pot a little, because they don’t have a follow up play.
Longer take: I find the reference to Jackson-Vanik extremely interesting. Far more than the crude effort to push Trump’s buttons or the lack of understanding on how our constitutional machinery works and agitprop spin.
Most Americans have forgotten Jackson-Vanik and the refusenik issue but Russians of Putin’s generation have not and it means something very different to them than to us. The reference to Jackson-Vanik is aimed less at us than their domestic audience and I find that quite telling. I certainly would not have used it if I were in their shoes. It would be like Xi exclaiming that some action by the US was an “unequal treaty“.
Here’s the significance in my view. During early Détente, the Soviet side had the objective of leveraging better relations with the US to improve the Soviet economy. Brezhnev personally valued this outcome as a way to have both guns and butter. There were Soviet internal political drivers at work too in that Brezhnev was using Detente and the material rewards that would flow from it, to elbow aside Kosygin and Podgorny in the politburo and become the de facto leader of the USSR. And Nixon and Kissinger obliged, having the theory that a combination of trade, aid, American credibility, linkage, arms control, the China card and such could tame the Soviet bear and split the Soviet bloc while easing US problems in Vietnam. So in this time period you had incongruities like the rabidly anti-Communist Bill Casey, then Nixon’s head of the Import-Export Bank, defending credits, loans and various deals with Communist countries in Congressional testimony.
Well, Congressional Democrats led by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson began putting sticks in the spokes of Nixon’s wheel, culminating in Jackson-Vanik in 1974. The Soviets reacted with rage out of all proportion to the actual value of the US-Soviet trade at the time, protesting this law was a violation of Soviet sovereignty; more to the point, Jackson-Vanik terminated the prospect of any future spigots of American cash that Brezhnev intended to use to increase consumer goods or reform moribund Soviet agriculture. Furthermore, it wounded Soviet prestige by essentially denying the equality between the Superpowers that Brezhnev and company were fairly desperate to trumpet on the world stage.
While there was an effort to sustain Detente through the Ford administration it was winding down and it collapsed entirely under President Carter as Soviet foreign policy became increasingly aggressive and adventurous in the Third World. The Soviets saw Jackson-Vanik as a turning point in relations with America and complained bitterly about the law ever after. In retrospect, you could trace the American pressure that nudged the USSR toward collapse in 1991 back to Jackson-Vanik; and whether Russian nationalists see the law as part of the vast Western conspiracy to destroy the Soviet Union or not ( many would) it is certainly seen as an example of our hostility. These events were part of Vladimir Putin’s formative experience in acquiring his chekist-siloviki worldview when he was a law student already in the KGB recruit track.
So given the vulnerability of the export based, relatively small Russian economy their reaction today strikes me as bluster and empty bravado. They really can’t win a serious economic confrontation with the West ( which these sanctions are not) and they know it. There’s some panicky, sky is falling, undercurrents here. The danger is that Putin’s regime if handled poorly may attempt to compensate, as did Brezhnev’s USSR, with small, foreign adventures. Russia can’t really afford this either – not sustained combat operations over months against a new semi serious conventional opponent, but subversion, terrorism and little green men paramilitaries are cheap