As Washington is consumed by the strongest evidence yet of collusion—or at least the desire for collusion—between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, Moscow is slamming the U.S. government over its failure to hand back two diplomatic compounds seized by the Obama administration in December. Even though the Trump administration has indicated it would like to move toward handing back the compounds, such a concession is hard to imagine now, even from this administration, given the current focus on Trump’s Russia ties. The juxtaposition underlines the irony of Russia’s current position: It has a U.S. administration that has shown itself more than willing to entertain the idea of rolling back economic sanctions, but action has become politically impossible because that willingness is so transparent and suspect.
The U.S. currently has a wide variety of sanctions on Russian officials, business figures, and companies. The oldest measures relate to arms deals with countries like Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Then there’s the 2012 Magnitsky Act, originally aimed at individuals allegedly involved in the death of a lawyer—Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after uncovering corruption by government officials—which has since been expanded to include other alleged human rights abusers. (Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr., is a leading campaigner to overturn the act on behalf of one of her clients.) These sanctions are established by acts of Congress, making them difficult for Trump to overturn.
More recently the Obama administration imposed additional sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, as well as its alleged interference in the election. These measures, however, were imposed by executive order, meaning Trump could eliminate them if he wanted to.
It’s hard to argue that any of these measures have done much to deter Vladimir Putin’s foreign-policy adventurism or to improve human rights conditions in Russia, but they have made life difficult for some very powerful and well-connected people. Trump had said during the campaign that he wanted to “make a great deal for our country and get along with Russia,” and sanctions relief has always been the most obvious thing Russia would have wanted out of any such deal. In December, during the transition, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told me he believed that “The Kremlin is focused like a laser on trying to get sanctions lifted in the next six months.”
The Trump team also seems to have been focused on the sanctions issue. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn made his infamous call to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak last December to discuss the sanctions Obama had announced in response to Russia’s election hacking, including the seizure of the two diplomatic compounds that Moscow has been grumbling about this week. Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff has also reported that in the first weeks of the new administration, Trump officials tasked State Department staffers with drafting new proposals to lift Russia sanctions—this directive prompted some of those staffers to lobby Congress to prevent the move.
Sanctions relief may still be on Trump’s wish list. There were reports before president’s recent meeting with Putin in Germany that the National Security Council had been asked to brainstorm concessions, such as sanctions relief or return of the compounds, that Trump could offer during the meeting. After the meeting, Trump tweeted, “Sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with President Putin. Nothing will be done until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved!” But White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said that election-related sanctions had come up in the meeting, though nothing had been settled.
Sanctions relief may soon get even trickier for the White House. A bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate last month would introduce a wide range of new sanctions on Russia related to the country’s cyberattacks and support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. It would also establish a new review process that would give Congress a say if the White House wanted to ease sanctions. The White House has been lobbying against the House version of the bill this week—again, not great timing—arguing that it would tie their hands diplomatically. (That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.)
The significant sanctions relief that Russia may have envisioned when Trump was elected looks pretty unlikely now, but the new information we’re learning about Trump Jr.’s meeting with Veselnitskaya provides a picture of what Trump’s “great deal” might have looked like. We still don’t know exactly what material she actually had to offer on Hillary Clinton, but Trump claims, plausibly, that Veselnitskaya also wanted to discuss the Magnitsky Act—her personal crusade—as well as Russia’s ban on U.S. adoptions.
The adoption issue is more significant than you might think. While Russia has responded to Western sanctions with a number of retaliatory measures—a lot of them self-defeating—the adoption ban is a rare issue where Russia actually has some leverage. Russia had been one of the main countries of origin for children adopted by U.S. families until Putin signed a law banning American adoptions in 2012. The law was widely seen as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, also passed that year. Members of Congress and parents groups, including hundreds of families who were already in the process of adopting children from Russian orphanages when the law was passed, have been lobbying the State Department for years to resolve the dispute. Getting the ban overturned might yield much-needed positive PR for Trump, and that’s a pretty enticing carrot to dangle in front of this administration in return for something it wants to do anyway. But now that the spotlight has been placed more directly on this issue, it seems much less likely to happen
Which leaves us in an incredible situation: The Trump’s administration’s eagerness to accept Russian help during the election, failure to cover its own tracks, and ongoing refusal to accept that any interference took place have made Russia so radioactive in American politics that Russia’s elite are unlikely to get the relief they were expecting from having their preferred guy in the White House.