Editor’s Note: Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at UMV, the Institute of International Relations Prague, and coordinator of its Centre for European Security. He is a specialist on Russian security affairs, intelligence and organized crime, and is also principal director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence, which specializes in Russia research. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Vladimir Putin’s counter to new US sanctions on Russia was curiously out of date.
While hyped as a sign that the Kremlin had both lost patience with President Trump and was still willing to show its teeth, it probably better demonstrates Moscow’s diminishing range of options than anything else.
The US sanctions are directed toward hitting Russia’s energy infrastructure in response to its alleged interference in the 2016 US elections. By contrast, the Kremlin is demanding that the Americans cut their diplomatic missions staff in Russia by 755, bringing them down to the same numbers as Moscow’s people in Washington.
There is a strange asymmetry, given that in the past sanctions and responses have tended to mirror each other, not least for symbolic impact.
Therefore, it is likely that these were moves originally drawn up in reply to Barack Obama’s decision back in December to kick out 35 diplomats and seal off two Russian compounds in response to meddling in the elections.
Back then, Moscow decided not to respond, making a grand public play of its forbearance. After all, Trump was heading for the White House, and there were still hopes in Putin’s team that his fulsome praise of Russia might be translated into some practical gains.
Since then, though, the Russians have learned the painful lesson that Trump promises more than he can deliver and have watched as a suspicious Congress, a hostile media and a rolling judicial investigation increasingly tie his hands when it comes to working with Moscow.
With this new round of sanctions, Putin clearly felt he could not afford not to respond. For a leader who has built so much of his personal legitimacy on his image as the defender of Russian interests, the risk was that he would look weak.
But the fact that the best they could do was, in effect, to pull some old counter-sanctions out of the deep freeze, underlines the sharp disparity between Moscow and Washington’s positions.
This latest move will certainly inconvenience both the US State Department and also any Russian wanting a US visa or otherwise hoping to use the services of America’s embassy and consulates there. It will be especially problematic for all those Russians employed by the US government who will find themselves unemployed.
But while Putin called these “biting” measures, that is something of an exaggeration. In the grand scheme of things, they will be pretty limited in their impact. Diplomatic contacts will continue, visas will be processed – albeit more slowly. Exchanges will still take place.
The truth of the matter is that while Putin had rather more “biting” options at his disposal, they would hurt him more that they would hurt the Americans. NASA, for example, still depends on Russian rockets to loft its astronauts to the International Space Station, and Moscow could have refused to do this any more – but that would have cost Russia’s cash-strapped space program almost a billion dollars in 2017 and 2018 alone.
Likewise, Russia exports nothing essential to America, and with a GDP smaller than that of New York state’s, there is minimal scope for other economic moves.
So discount the instant “Putin gets tough” headlines.
Not only are the Russians still desperate not to burn their bridges with Trump – tellingly, the counter-sanctions were announced after the US measures were passed on the Hill, but before the presidential signature, so they can be sold as a response to “Congress’s sanctions” – these are eye-catching but essentially empty measures.
As ever, Putin is trying to look tough, while being in an extremely weak position.