US president Donald Trump says it has become much harder for him to make a deal with Russia because of “the false, horrible, fake reporting by the media.” But the real challenge to Trump’s proposed improvement in Russian relations is strong, bipartisan opposition on the Hill.
Trump on 13 February asked his national security adviser Michael Flynn to step down after revelations that prior to taking office Flynn had discussed possible sanctions relief with Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak. The story is a “ruse,” Trump said in a press conference this week, even though he confirmed the substance of the discussion. Trump added that Putin must be thinking “it’s got to be impossible for President Trump to ever get along with Russia because of all the pressure he’s got with this fake story.”
While Trump is trying to read Putin’s mind, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) is wondering about the motivation for “this relationship that seems to exist and seems to be preeminent and seems to be driving so much of the conversation within the White House.”
Corker’s Republican colleagues in the Senate and the House are partnering with congressional Democrats to write into law the sanctions that former president Barack Obama’s administration imposed in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. The sanctions prohibited sales of shale, deepwater and arctic oil and gas technology and barred debt financing to Russian state-run oil companies, forcing ExxonMobil to walk away from an Arctic joint venture with Rosneft.
The sanctions did not prevent Russia’s output from reaching a post-Soviet era high of about 11mn b/d last year. But restrictions on dollar lending are forcing the Russian government to draw down its foreign reserves, raising the prospect of heavier tax burden on oil producers.
The Kremlin, for now, has no criticism for the new administration. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov following his first meeting with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson on 16 February says the subject of sanctions did not come. But he adds that the US “should analyze whether the artificial desire to politicize certain issues meets the interests of the states that apply sanctions.”
Trump insists that a détente with Russia would benefit the US, and says showing restraint is a good tactic.
“It would be much easier for me to be tough on Russia, but then we’re not going to make a deal,” Trump laments.