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Washington's Conduct Toward Russia Is Ad Hoc and Reckless

The glaring absence of logic in American decisions is not a hopeful sign

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Over the years the author has been a prominent member of the Russian MSM and is an influential political columnist

Accusations of corruption against Vladimir Putin made in a BBC film, "Putin's Secret Riches”, in which the assistant US Treasury secretary responsible for the fight against "dirty" money used the word “corruption” has caused predictable outrage in the Kremlin. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the accusations, whose evidence is weak, "shameless". Moscow has demanded explanations, but the White House stated that “we fully share his opinion”.

Russian rulers have been accused of all sorts of things, most frequently despotism. The Yeltsin regime as a whole was accused of corruption, but a leader personally - never. Not to mention that such behavior is unusual - even in the context of sanctions - between major countries that have diplomatic relations and are engaged in negotiations over important issues.

A Syrian peace settlement, not to mention a Ukrainian settlement, depends on cooperation with Moscow. It may accuse many countries of government corruption, but the US does not habitually throw official accusations around. Not to mention Washington’s own "sons of bitches”.

Why now?  And what will the consequences be as relations between Moscow and Washington move to a new quarrelsome level?

It’s unusual to forgive such offensive accusations against a leader. It’s unlikely that Szubin cleared his words with the State Department, and even less likely with Obama.  They implied that in its determination to extend its jurisdiction to the entire world in the fight against "dirty" money, the US will arrest such a leader the minute he loses diplomatic immunity. Russia has no choice but to react beforehand.

Washington references to the situation in Russia follow a simple pattern: the fall in oil prices, combined with sanctions, will force Moscow to make concessions across the board, from Syria to Ukraine. It’s no longer a key partner in the negotiations: if they refuse to cooperate we’ll manage without them, without wasting time putting pressure on Putin say, by supplying arms to Ukraine. Americans trainers for the Ukrainian army and politely holding Kiev politicians in check is enough, since America does not want a war in Ukraine and believes events in the southeast are not working in Moscow's favor.

This ploy is oversimplified, revealing a lack of understanding of the subtleties of Russian politics (usual for Americans), due to the lack of real Russian experts at the "Russian desk", in comparison with the Cold War era that allowed the situation to disintegrate under the leadership of "gray strategists" from Brussels.

I believe the US seriously exaggerates the effect of the sanctions and the inertia of the system while underestimating the Russian people's willingness to adapt to difficulties.

America doesn’t even say what it would like to see Russia become in the future in order to be friends again. Pressure prevails over long-term reckoning, and it is far from certain that anyone in Washington has seriously considered the possible collapse of a country with 1,500 nuclear warheads, in comparison to which Libya, Iraq and ISIS will seem trifling. If you are determined to bring down a regime, you need to imagine what will come when the Kingdom of Freedom replaces the Empire of Evil. And if the current policy towards Moscow is to “bring it down", why is it being made clear to the leader that the US no longer wishes to have dealings with him?

It is possible that Americans, taken aback by a ‘macho” man who dares to contradict the "spineless Obama", think they can win a public relations war by painting him as a kleptocrat?

The model seems to be America's relations with Latin American and African regimes, where sanctions have long been highly developed. From 1990 to 2007, 80% of American sanctions were accompanied by demands for "democratization". But this tactic only worked against regimes whose elites were split, and where there was an independent military. Regimes with an authoritarian elite most often rally around the leader, shifting the costs of the sanctions onto the population.

It would be wrong to compare Russia to Latin America, and at the moment, Washington cannot count on a split within the Russian elite. The only "flights" happening are those of individual officials caught stealing.

Even those who have suffered losses in the internal struggle for dwindling resources are not taking the liberty of open dissent. The government knows where the main threat comes from historically and avoids challenging the elite’s interests. Even the sluggish fight for "sovereignization", including the ban on exporting some of "their own belongings", is seen (at the moment) as a careful step: the West is now more dangerous for the elite than the Investigating committee, which will not touch you if you are among the “in" crowd.

How does all this fit with John Kerry’s hints about the possibility of a partial lifting of sanctions as early as this year, if the Minsk Agreement is implemented? Well, it doesn’t. There will most likely not be any lifting, especially of direct ones. 

First, because the prospects for implementation of the Minsk Agreement are obscure. Moscow might like to put an end to the "Novorossiya project", but not at the price of total capitulation. Kiev is in no hurry to implement its part of the job - both because of chaotic and irresponsible Ukrainian policy, and because the West's pressure is weak. They are in no hurry "to help Putin". 

Second, the "exchange of Ukraine for Syria" has only partially succeeded. It’s better to dialogue with America over Assad's fate than to argue about who is more to blame for Debaltsevo. But Syria and Ukraine will remain separate, and the prospect for relations with Putin's Russia is another issue. Evidently, Washington is proceeding from the fact that there is no need to hurry in Syria, given the threat of the Islamic State on the regime it is trying to depose, while Russia, acting almost without allies (Iran does not need a big war after the sanctions) will not sustain a long intervention.

Sanctions will be considered in a different context from when they were introduced, for example, in light of the Litvinienko report, that contains even more shameless accusations against the president, with the final report on the Malaysian Boeing still to come.

It’s hard to imagine how sanctions can be lifted in such an atmosphere, in spite of the American Congress or public opinion in Europe. Given the abundance of relatively independent players in the West, a sword of Damocles  hangs over Russia’s assets, together with a $50 billion judgement in the Yukos case.

In light of this obviously planned, coordinated attack, how can the Kremlin talk to Cameron who questioned nothing in Judge Owen’s report, even the most offensive and unfounded charges that would not stand up in court. And how can they talk to Obama now? If Washington thinks that Lavrov and Kerry will be able to continue to negotiate, I believe they are deluding themselves.

The situation is explosive, and no-one has thought it through; it’s one big improvisation.

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