Top 5 Ways Obama Sanctions on Russia work for Democrats

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

President Obama’s sanctions on Russia are small potatoes and will have almost no effect on the Russian Federation. The high officials sanctioned are unlikely to have assets in the US that Washington can attach. When you hear that the US is sanctioning the FSB (the Russian CIA) and the GRU (military intelligence), that is a sign of measures taken just for show. As for the covert actions, we’ll never know what or if those were.

Moreover, if the charge is that the Russians influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, then either they did or they didn’t. If they didn’t, they aren’t very good hackers and might have been safely ignored. If they did, then why no demand that the results of the election be set aside and new elections held? Why are no specific effects of the Russian hacking demonstrated? (As regular readers know, I don’t believe anything the Russians did threw the election to Trump. Sec. Clinton isn’t a very good candidate, that’s all. When they asked her why she took $800,000 a speech to talk to Goldman Sachs, she replied that it was what they offered.)

So why did the Obama administration put on this charade? While I don’t deny that Russian hackers may have been active, I think these minor sanctions have been announced at this time as part of a Democratic Party long game against Donald J. Trump. There is nothing wrong with such a partisan ploy– most politics have this form.

1. A big announcement of sanctions on Russia for interfering in the US election casts doubts on the legitimacy of Trump’s election. In essence, playing the Russian card is sweet revenge on Trump for his birther lies about Obama having not been a US citizen. The Obama sanctions on Russian create the specter in the mind of the public of Trump as a Manchurian candidate. In turn, such doubts could help the Dems in 2020.

2. Placing sanctions on Russia that Trump clearly does not want puts him on the spot. If he actively rolls them back, he can be tagged by the Democrats as soft on Putin. If he does not, he risks giving Putin the idea that he is not a reliable ally.

3. These sanctions make it harder for Republicans to speak out of both sides of their mouths on the Democrats and Russia. Ideally, they’d like at the same time to maintain that Obama and the Dems were weak on Russia and that Trump is right to improve relations with it. Now they have to take one position or the other. Putin may be popular with Trump Republicans but he isn’t in the country at large.

4. These sanctions on Russia cast a pigeon among the cats. They have the potential to escalate conflicts between the “national security” Republicans in Congress, especially, the Senate, and Trump. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a statement that Obama had not gone far enough against Russia, and pledging to establish an investigatory committee to look into the charges of Russian hacking.

Since Trump himself responded that it is “time for our country to move on to bigger and better things” and that computers have made all our lives complicated (i.e. he refused to join in the critique of Russia), he is on a collision course with his own party.

5. The timing of the announcement of sanctions on Russia may have been intended to take the shine off of Putin’s achievement of a new cease-fire in Syria, one arranged between Russia and Turkey (and their respective clients) without reference to the United States. Republicans interviewed on cable tv have been complaining that Obama and the Dems have let themselves become irrelevant to the Middle East. (It is a low, hypocritical talking point; these same GOP politicians made it clear in September of 2013 that they would not vote for US military intervention in Syria over the al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in the civil war). In any case, it is a little hard for them to be too fulsome about Putin outplaying President Obama in Syria given the charges of Russian interference in the US political system. Besides, I wouldn’t count on that cease-fire in Syria lasting too long; as usual, it excludes the most effective fighters on the rebel side.


Related video:

President Obama: America Should Be Alarmed By Russia’s Actions | MSNBC

20 Responses

  1. “the specter in the mind of the public of Trump as a Manchurian candidate”

    In contrast to the birther lie this story line has the advantage of being highly plausible and impossible to refute.

  2. He;s playing with fire. “Sweet revenge” involves provoking a potential war with a nuclear power. Does the scorched earth method of Obama creating crisis after crisis right before Trump takes office benefit the American people? Now, if you are smart enough to figure out that he is trying to help democrats in 2020, in dec 2016, then won’t millions of people figure out what Obama has done when 2020 rolls around? Won’t this cause Americans to vote against this type of scheme.

    • “Does the scorched earth method of Obama creating crisis after crisis right before Trump takes office benefit the American people?” – Get a grip! Seriously.

  3. The Democrats need to focus on saving the ACA, protecting immigrants rights, blocking Trump’s nominees, etc. How does spending so much time talking about and investigating Russia help stop the Republicans from doing a lot of damage next year?

  4. You are probably right about the cease fire agreed by the Syrian government, Russia, Turkey and Iran, not being likely to last. What fascinates me about this particular deal is who did the Russians actually speak to on the rebels side. Presumably they met a leader(s) but since the Russians and the Syrian government has declared all the protagonists fighting against the Syrian government as terrorists, its hard to know how they managed to make contact with the ‘other side’ . You are right of course, to say most of the anti Assad fighters are members of ISIS and others who are universally acknowledged to be terrorists and won’t be taking part in any cease fire. The question is, will the so called moderates be able to separate themselves from ISIS etc? It didn’t work last time so I doubt it will work this time. The Americans have only just signed of a law to allow the provision of shoulder mounted anti aircraft missiles to the rebels so what will happen to this deal? Will America, Britain and other allies continue to arm and finance the rebels during the cease fire? Lastly, Saudi Arabia has made no secret of the fact that they intend to keep on supporting the ISIS fighters until Assad is gone. I fear the horror of the Syrian conflict is far from over.

    • Turkey represented the rebels and got the Russians to recognize the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham) as *not* terrorists!

  5. These sanctions illustrate once again the conflict inherent in the structure of the US constitution which was designed for the conduct of domestic safeguards rather than an ever expansive foreign policy. All five points here and the perspective of the article itself confirm this. What is not taken into account is the effect on the rest of the world where Obama appears to be losing his marbles towards the end of his long and arduous stint in the big chair. Such sanctions make Trump look mature and statesmanlike with his call to get on with bigger things and reference to the complexity of the world of computers, and they have opened the door for the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova to give praise and express sympathy for John Kerry for having to put up with so dysfunctional a foreign policy link to . It’s embarrassing.

    • We have just had another example of how ill-advised diplomatic behaviour blows straight back in your face. In an impressive pas de deux the Russian Foreign Minister recommends tit for tat reprisals, on public TV no less, and Putin demonstrates his statesmanship by declining to retaliate, going even further by inviting the US diplomats’ kids to come share the Russian New Year celebrations with him! The NYT with familiar insularity sees this as Putin gambling on Trump rather than an elegant finesse that leaves the world chuckling. link to

    • I disagree entirely. Obama is hardly “losing his marbles.” US intelligence agencies are now of one mind about Russian interference in the elections. Some would like to “move on”, whatever that means.

      Sanctions are appropriate and the publicly-announced measures taken by Obama aren’t severe. Let’s hope that the unannounced measures are painful enough to deter future Kremlin meddling in US domestic affairs.

        • Eric – The Bush White House manufactured the Saddam WMD fiction based on purposefully malinterpreted intel. A certain CIA analyst lost her job by differing with false Bush White House claims.

          Attempting to rewrite history is not nice and less than mediocre.

        • I listened but I was very skeptical. The obvious ideological bias of Bush WH helped shape the conclusions that got made public. Obama’s a pragmatist, not a Cold Warrior out to “get the Russkies.”

          Another point: Contrary to what Trump steadfastly maintains, it is very easy for cybersecurity forensics experts to identify the source of attacks. Let’s not let ideology or bias get in the way here. We can only devise clear-headed policy based upon a clear-headed look at the evidence.

  6. All Trump needs to do is make public Obama’s “evidence” of Russian interference, assuming it exists and doesn’t include important secrets. He could at least share it with Congress.

  7. It is interesting to see the widespread lies about Russia’s interference while the same people welcome the never-changing interference of Israel in US elections. Lindsey Graham admits (boasts) that all the Senate is against the recent UNSC criticism of Israel’s illegal acts, which is true. This is the “US Senate” involved in the “US ” national interest? The treatment of Russia as an enemy, which you remind us is the attitude of most of the US population, is obviously caused by the “leaders” and the media, not by the facts an honest observer could find out if he or she wished.

  8. As far as ‘why do this if there was no ‘real’ influence on the election’, I think the attempt to interfere is reason enough, successful or not. (After all, you can still be charged with “attempted murder”, no?) It demanded a response; and no one seems to doubt that the same thing is happening wholesale in Europe’s elections. So the skepticism and tut-tutting here, particularly given Putin/Russia’s strange recent popularity among the American right wing, seems like a remnant of something from a few decades ago. And I think Obama understands Russia’s position fairly well: in every category except nuclear readiness, they’re weak, and their asymmetric psyop campaign, while possibly effective, is proof. Putin has already declared he won’t expel US diplomats and will just wait for the new ‘friendly’ administration. Not the best look for he or Trump; makes the possible collusion between them even more glaring.

  9. IMO, the hack-the-election storyline, just like the faithless-elector storyline, have a blocking effect, or an opportunity cost if you like. During all the time taken up by these stories, more meaningful criticisms of Trump are buried into the back pages or displaced completely.

    For instance, Trump’s cabinet picks are a very thorough repudiation of his own base among voters, as far as being anti-establishment. This ought to be a lead news item. In contrast, his base almost completely discounts the hack-the-election story, so Democrats have almost no traction to damage Trump politically along that line.

    Trump’s foreign policy team appear to be neo-con’s every bit as kooky as Clinton’ team. This was an angle that resonated with some voters. Would also make a better lead item, IMO, than pot-to-kettle accusations between US/Russian spy services.

    As for the actual merits of the hack-the-election story… If the US did just get regime-changed as a result of Podesta falling for a phishing scam straight out of 1996 AOL, that would of course be terrifying. If Obama couldn’t release his evidence because his only evidence was obtained by hacking the Russians, that would be kindof funny (but sad-funny).

    I’m inclined to agree that it’s an ass-covering sideshow, however. It all comes back to … if the Democrats wanted to win bad enough, they wouldn’t have insisted on nominating Clinton.

  10. “Most effective fighters on the rebel side” meaning at least “Levantine Conquest Front (the Nusra Front)”? 12/28 piece

    Each time a journalist or even a commenter writes about the hacking, IMO they always need to break it down to 1)dumping hacked correspondence and 2)altering the count. For as long as they don’t, IMO…little headway on the part of readers’ comprehension or constructive feedback. In the time I have to look over Palast’s site [singularly slow at the moment, why?] I don’t see anything along these lines. Where are his marbles? (I ask myself; no one else seems to care) Yes, I also tend to think count-hackers have vastly less access than, for example, Crosscheck, Republican vote trashers, etc.

    If it were a John LeCarre novel, bobc & peteybee, I think this whole thing would be like disinformation in 3D.

    More than an “ass covering sideshow”…I tend to think they wanted him to do more, so he did this. Or is that what you meant, petey? It’s not such a huge distraction if the majority of Americans think Russia hacked, and are mad about it. It’s just disinfo to the effect our leader cares and is doing something…like the prof sez, small potatoes.

    “3. These sanctions make it harder for Republicans to speak out of both sides of their mouths on the Democrats and Russia. Ideally, they’d like at the same time to maintain that Obama and the Dems were weak on Russia and that Trump is right to improve relations with it. Now they have to take one position or the other. Putin may be popular with Trump Republicans but he isn’t in the country at large.

    My only fb friend that seems outraged is a Dem, but he’s very “vocal” re other important present issues. Here’s where bobc and peteybee are somewhat on the mark IMO. In a way can’t help but view these measures as distractions myself…during a valuable period, and indeed dumbly provocative Russia-wise. In the main and on the whole, however, nominal. Not sure Pubs’ll have to take one position or the other. If they thought DT should have cared more, they’ll simply go into denial re they ever thought such a thing…maybe until the unfolding doesn’t look so sweet, say, 100 days from the 20th (but by then maybe all of America will comprehend the reality that there are tons of anti-US free lance hackers in Russia…and probably that there had been a group of ticked off Dem insiders too!).

    • @David:

      by “hack-the-election”, I meant allegations that it was the Russian government who gave Wikileaks the Podesta archives. No evidence at all of attacks on electronic voting machines. (And why are some states using paperless electronic voting? Machines with paper master records (still digitally scanned) are much safer, and just as fast.)

      Anyway, there are lots reasons this is a sideshow story. Sorry this is going to get long.

      First, accusing Russia or any country of trying to infiltrate your electronic systems sounds awful, but when you’re doing the same, there’s no moral ground to stand on anymore. It doesn’t make it right, but it ends up about the same as one spy accusing another spy – pointless.

      More serious, maybe, is the hypothetical question of whether sneaky actions to influence public opinion in another country’s election crosses a “red line”? Or at the very least whether it is a severe insult? I would think yes, but again, after the last 15 years, the hypocrisy factor makes a tragic mockery of that too.

      A sideshow within the sideshow is how the released materials actually did their alleged damage. It was because they revealed sneaky actions by Podesta et al, which manipulated the public during the election, complete with receipts for 8-figure sums donated by dubious foreign governments.

      So the whole thing is just a show of outrage for politics, which I get. I think the effect of this will be to somewhat reinforce cohesion within both the R and D parties, in the face of their respective challenge by each of their anti-establishment wings.

      Remember, every time one party says something bad about the other party’s candidate, that candidate’s party rallies around them.

      So Obama accuses Trump, and Republicans support him (ignoring the massive bait-and-switch played on anti-establishment Republicans). Similarly, Trump will bite back, or perhaps Putin will do so, which drives anti-establishment Democrats back toward the mainstream D politicians.

      It’s a fantastic parting gift from Obama to both main parties. Incoming Sec of State Tillerson also gets a nice little nugget to use in XOM’s future negotiations with Russia (repeal sanctions etc in exchange for oil related concessions).

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