USA Foreign Policy

Why Obama 'boxed-in' Trump with Russian sanctions

modes of thought

President-elect Donald Trump, who has declined to acknowledge evidence of Russian interference in the US election, is at odds with both the White House and members of his own party.

President Barack Obama speaks during a Dec. 16 news conference at the White House in Washington. Obama has imposed sanctions on Russian officials and intelligence services in retaliation for Russia's interference in the U.S. presidential election by hacking American political sites and email accounts.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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One day after President Obama announced a series of sanctions against Russia for tampering with the US election – and that 35 suspected spies would be given 72 hours to leave the country – Russia announced Friday that its own, tit-for-tat diplomatic retaliation was in the works.

That was pending required approval by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in the end chose to send perhaps an even stronger message by not expelling US diplomats at all, signaling that he is content biding his time until America’s new president takes charge Jan. 20.

President-elect Donald Trump has resolutely declined to acknowledge any Russian involvement hacking into the Democratic presidential candidate’s emails, and added that these charges are the stuff of sore-loserdom on the part of his political opponents.

This week, he stayed that course.

“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. Despite his skepticism, he added that he would go ahead and meet with US intelligence officials next week, “in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”

Kellyanne Conway, who will serve as a key counselor in the Trump White House, speculated that Obama’s moves this week were designed to “box-in” the new president.

“I will tell you that even those who are sympathetic to President Obama on most issues are saying that part of the reason he did this today was to, quote, ‘box in’ President-elect Trump,” she told CNN Thursday.

That’s about right, analysts agree. But they don’t see it as a purely politically motivated ploy. Foreign meddling in a US election is a matter of bipartisan concern, and one that elected leaders of both parties have said they are not comfortable having brushed under the rug.

While the driving impetus behind the sanctions is to send a signal to Mr. Putin that, “We know what you did and we don't approve of it,” a close second point of the new moves is to force Trump to once again clearly state that he doesn’t believe Russians meddled in the US elections, or that maybe they did but he doesn’t care, says Julianne Smith, director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“It puts Trump in an awkward position because he has to say to himself, to the public, and to Congress that it somehow doesn’t matter what Russia did in recent months” or deny that it happened at all, adds Ms. Smith, who served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

This puts him at considerable odds with leaders within his own party. House Speaker Paul Ryan, for his part, called the sanctions overdue. “Russia does not share America’s interests,” he said in a statement. “In fact, it has consistently sought to undermine them, sowing dangerous instability around the world.”

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with his close colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, also a key member of the committee, released a statement saying that not only are the actions “long overdue” but that Russia should pay an even greater price for its “brazen attack on American democracy.”

To this end, the two vowed to “lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions” on Russia.

“This is indicative of the reality that Russia is going to be an area of fundamental disagreement within the Republican Party, assuming Trump’s position continues to hold,” says Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are a large chunk of Republicans who are nervous about Russia, who don’t like the idea that Russia interfered.”

“Going about our lives as Trump has suggested is a lovely notion – if you believe it’s a one-time deal,” she adds. “But saying that we can just move on seems to ignore the fact that it has rattled our system and revealed some potential weaknesses in it.”

Trump could certainly reverse the sanctions put in place by Obama this week, but not without paying a political price.

It is a cost that is likely to rise as a new Congress begins holding hearings on Russian involvement in election monitoring.

When this happens, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and retired Gen. Jim Mattis, nominee to be the next Department of Defense head, will no doubt be called to testify. Both have made no secret of the fact that they consider Russia a top security concern.

“In off-the-record engagements, Dunford has been pretty frank that he would like to be more assertive in countermeasures to Russian aggression,” Smith says.

Top White House officials have hinted strongly that sanctions and diplomatic expulsions are not all that Russia will have to contend with in the weeks to come, but that there will perhaps be some secret cyber countermeasures launched against Putin’s government as well.

“I’m sure Putin is thinking hard about what those might be. We know that Putin is very concerned about public opinion and popular uprising – and that he’s concerned about it perhaps even well beyond the actual danger that exists,” Oliker says. “These new measures will play on those fears.”