Obama set to hit Russia with further sanctions over election hacking
The fate of new sanctions remains unclear, however, with Trump due to take over the White House in little more than three weeks
The outgoing US administration is poised to hit Russia with further sanctions before Barack Obama leaves office next month, in response to allegations of Russian hacking and interference in the US electoral process.
Russia, meanwhile, promised retaliation against Washington in the event of new economic sanctions.
The Obama administration has had a rocky relationship with Russia and has already imposed several rounds of sanctions on Moscow, mainly for its actions in Ukraine.
The US president-elect, Donald Trump, by contrast, has repeatedly praised the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and has dismissed claims that Russia intervened to get him elected.
But the prominent Republican senator Lindsey Graham, a hardliner on Russia and a constant critic of Trump, told a news conference in Latvia that Congress would “investigate the Russian involvement in our elections”.
“There will be bipartisan sanctions coming that will hit Russia hard, particularly Putin as an individual,” Graham told CNN. “I would say that 99 of us believe the Russians did this and we’re going to do something about it.”
A recent report in The Washington Post said the White House was already close to announcing new sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the hacking. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the report.
The fate of new sanctions remains unclear, however, with Trump due to take over the White House in little more than three weeks. During the campaign, Trump not only suggested he might lift sanctions on Russia, but also said he would look into the possibility of recognising Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as part of Russia.
Asked by reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida if the US should sanction Russia over hacking activities, Trump said on Wednesday: “I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, has also raised eyebrows, given his long history of doing business with Russia as head of Exxon Mobil, and his close personal friendship with Igor Sechin, head of the Russian oil giant Rosneft. Sechin is one of Putin’s closest associates, and is on the US sanctions list.
Tillerson said in 2014 that Exxon did not support sanctions in general because they were hard to implement effectively. At an economic forum in Russia earlier this year, he laughed off a question on sanctions, while saying he agreed with “my friend Mr Sechin”.
Not all the sanctions currently in place would be easy for Trump to revoke, even if he wanted to do so. Most difficult would be those against Russian individuals implicated in human rights abuses, linked to the Magnitsky Act, named after the whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison.
They were put in place in 2013 using an act of Congress, and as such Congress would be required to revoke them. It is likely that the White House would also ensure any new sanctions related to hacking could not be easily rescinded by Trump.
However, the wider ranging sanctions that were introduced by the Obama administration over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in east Ukraine were implemented by presidential executive order, and as such could be revoked by Trump with the stroke of a pen.
Were Trump to do so, European businesses would put major pressure on their governments to lift EU sanctions as well, so as not to allow US companies an unfair advantage on the Russian market.
In a televised interview last week, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was hoping for “new, fresher and more constructive approaches” from Trump’s administration. He said Russia would welcome further dialogue but was not pushing for sanctions to be lifted.
“We didn’t initiate the sanctions dialogue and we won’t initiate their removal,” said Peskov. He said Russia and the US had not been particularly affected by sanctions, unlike European agricultural producers, who suffered losses from Russia’s counter-sanctions banning the imports of many food items.
However, there is no doubt that Russia would be extremely pleased to see the sanctions gone, not least because of the broader redefinition of the relationship it would signify. There have also been US business voices keen for the sanctions to be dropped.
Alexis Rodzianko, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, said: “The sanctions have been annoying and unhelpful for business interests. They had a direct impact, in the banking sanctions, and an indirect impact in that attitude towards US business.”
Brian Zimbler, managing partner at Morgan Lewis law firm in Moscow, said: “There is intense interest in Russia about future US policy, and lots of speculation that sanctions may be reduced or removed next year.
“Reduced sanctions would open up new opportunities to obtain funding for Russian-based projects, and potentially generate momentum for increased foreign investment in Russia, which has fallen to low levels.”
Bilateral ties have been extremely strained since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the sanctions. US diplomats say they have been routinely harassed by Russian authorities. Footage released over the summer showed a diplomat rugby tackled to the ground by a policeman while trying to get back inside the embassy compound. The diplomat was later accused of spying and expelled .
In June, the foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said : “Diplomacy is based on reciprocity. The more the US damages relations, the harder it will be for US diplomats to work in Russia.”
Russian officials, who cheered Trump’s victory, are hoping he will launch a complete overhaul of western policy towards the country, including sanctions.
“Officially nothing has changed, but the mood has changed perceptibly. It’s like a pre-honeymoon honeymoon period. They are openly happy, but only time will tell if they are right to be,” said Rodzianko.