Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Despite his tough talk, Trump has been consistently soft on Russia

Once again, the Trump administration’s actions are exposing the dangerous falsity of the president’s claims about taking a hard line on Russia.

The latest example comes from recent reports that the administration had yet to impose harsh new sanctions over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The White House announced in September that those sanctions would be meted out by mid-November, but we’re now more than 60 days past that deadline and nothing has happened.

This from a president who continues to present himself as “far tougher” on Russia than his last three predecessors and “maybe tougher than any other president.”

Wrong. If Trump’s actions matched his words, Russia would already be feeling the bite of sanctions from the Skripal incident, which was immediately traced to two Russian nationals.

This was an open-and-shut matter for the Trump administration, allowable by a longstanding law aimed at punishing countries using biological or chemical agents. In this case, a nerve agent was involved.

The law required the administration to first impose a light round of sanctions that would be followed by a heavier round in 90 days if Russia didn’t take responsibility for the incident and commit to reforms.

It’s anybody’s guess as to why there’s been no follow-up. In early November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Russia hadn’t done anything to avoid the sanctions, which could have included barring U.S. banks from loaning money to Russian companies.

What we do know is that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t want the U.S. to act — in October, he said the measures were “unprovoked.”

Now, Putin is getting what he wants. And Kremlin watchers are sounding alarms about what that could mean, as a ruthless dictator appears to be getting barely a tap on the wrist for an act of thuggery.

Former U.S. diplomat Daniel Fried told the investigative magazine Mother Jones that failing to follow through was hurting the administration.

“They’ve got to keep up the credibility, or else the Russians think you don’t mean it and then you have a higher risk the Russians will commit an even more serious act of aggression,” Fried said. He called it “astonishing” that the administration blew the deadline considering recent Russian actions such as the seizure of Ukrainian naval vessels near Crimea.

This is not the stance of a “tough” U.S. president.

But it’s completely consistent for a president whose own FBI has suspected him of acting as a Russian agent, a president who has kept details of his five meetings with Putin a secret, a president who opened the door to development of new Russian nuclear weapons by scrapping a 1987 treaty and a president whose surprise announcement about withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria drew a pat on the head from Putin, who called it the “correct” move.

Meanwhile, Trump’s Orwellian bluster about holding Putin accountable masks the fact that the Russian autocrat rolls right along after meddling in U.S. elections, ravaging Ukrainian territory, violating human rights and committing a chemical attack.

The good news is that Trump is now facing accountability in the House of Representatives. The Skripal sanctions are another example of why that’s important.

Putin’s core source of concern about the measures is undoubtedly based on the severe limits they place on Russia’s ability to move money through the global networks. That being the case, giving sanctions targets 60 extra days to arrange their affairs is appalling and defeats the purpose of the limitations. Sixty days is a long time to get things in order.

The same applies to the administration lifting sanctions this past weekend on three Russian firms with ties to oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Now, Deripaska has a chance to move vast amounts of money outside of Russia into dummy accounts and other places.

In essence, the Trump administration’s actions in both of these matters amount to giving bank robbers a key to the bank vault.

The administration has indicated that it’s still planning to impose sanctions for the Skripal incident. But after two months of waiting, we’d urge Nevada’s congressional delegates to do whatever they can to dial up the pressure and force Trump to follow through on his commitment.