Following last week’s crippling sanctions on individuals and companies closely connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump’s recent moves, including Friday’s missile attack on Syrian chemical warfare facilities, are a further warning to Moscow to change its behavior or face increasing economic and diplomatic pressure backed by military power.
The White House on Monday postponed promised new economic sanctions on Russia over its support for Syria’s President Bashar Assad but says they are still being considered. And President Trump continues to hold open the possibility of more military strikes in Syria.
Also on Monday the British and U.S. governments issued a joint warning that they have concluded with “high confidence” that Russia is behind a concerted effort to seize control of millions of routers, firewalls and intrusion detection programs used by individuals and businesses around the world. According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Russian government aims to conduct espionage and intellectual property theft and create the capability for massive denial-of-service attacks as part of a cyber warfare plan.
In other words, it appears to be “game on” between the two nuclear superpowers, with all the attendant risks. But the alternative of ignoring Russia’s information warfare, cyber aggression and destabilizing role in the Middle East also carries risks, including continued disruptions of western life and the growing possibility of a major war between Israel and Russia’s ally in Syria, Iran.
Meanwhile, global markets have shown the power of new sanctions imposed April 6 by the United States on seven oligarchs close to Mr. Putin, their companies and 17 Russian government officials. A major Russian aluminum producer, Rusal, lost 50 percent of its value when markets opened April 9, and other properties of oligarch Oleg Deripaska suffered large market losses. The sanctions prohibit banks from clearing dollar-denominated transactions by the sanctioned firms and individuals.
Those sanctioned from using the international banking system’s dollar market are only a small sample of more than 200 named Russians who might be subject to sanctions on a list published earlier this year by the Treasury Department in response to a congressional mandate.
President Trump remains committed to his view that U.S.-Russian cooperation would be a good thing. But he has gone much further down the road to confrontation with President Putin than either of his two predecessors by putting pressure on Mr. Putin’s key backers and Russia’s intervention in Syria.
The administration’s Syria strategy is a work in progress. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he wants to withdraw U.S. forces, but the weekend missile attacks suggest he will stay engaged.
While the exact mix of diplomacy and military operations in U.S. efforts to resolve the Syrian issue are still being worked out, the objective should be clear. No final settlement of the Syrian civil war should leave Iran in a position in Syria to strengthen its ability to carry out its declared intent to destroy Israel.
The emergence of French President Emmanuel Macron as an outspoken opponent of the Assad regime and as a military ally of the United States in the Syria conflict is a welcome major new development. It should make it clear to Russia that by continuing to back Assad and ally itself with Iran it is risking diplomatic isolation and pariah nation status.
President Trump is now committed to diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia, and he should also commit to seeing a truly peaceful outcome of the Syrian civil war that stabilizes a dangerous Middle East. Russia will undoubtedly lash out and raise the stakes, but Mr. Trump and his European allies have the stronger hand if they play it carefully.