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Sanctions may ironically lead to US-EU rift

By Yang Cheng | China Daily | Updated: 2017-08-03 07:18

Sanctions may ironically lead to US-EU rift

Russia has demanded the United States cut its diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 by September and could consider taking further action as part of its response to fresh US sanctions approved by Congress. US President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law soon, imposing sweeping sanctions on Russia, Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea that were approved by the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 97 to 2.

The "overlapping consensus" on the sanctions against the three countries, which primarily targets Russia, supposedly has something to do with the conclusion drawn by US intelligence agencies that Russia "meddled" in last year's US presidential election. It also signals an attempt to limit Trump's diplomatic powers and subject them to congressional approval, particularly when it comes to ties with Moscow.

Even if Trump refuses to sign the sanction bill into law, the Congress can overrule him. In fact, the only way Trump can stall the bill is to propose tougher sanctions against the three countries, a move that risks shrinking Washington's diplomatic leeway in the Middle East and Korean Peninsula issues, as well as plunging US-Russia relations into uncertainty just one month after Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg.

There is hardly any similarity between the latest US sanctions against Russia and those imposed by the Barack Obama administration. Unlike Trump, Obama had full presidential authority in devising the country's Russia policy, and his sanction proposals were in line with that of the European Union.

But since domestic political entanglements have necessitated the US' new sanctions, they could strain its ties with the EU. The bill, which aims to penalize companies that contribute to Russia's energy development, could hamper plans for a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany called Nord Stream 2. In response to the US' move, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: "America First cannot mean that Europe's interests come last".

During Obama's presidency, the US-EU sanctions were basically about restricting Russian energy companies' financing channels and blocking their access to key oil production technologies. Moscow is heavily dependent on energy development as are many Russian political and economic heavyweights who run most of the country's oil and gas companies.

Such "smart" sanctions from Washington and Brussels could apply the right amount of pressure on Moscow, without paralyzing EU-Russia energy cooperation or inviting Russian retaliation. After the US appeared to exploit shale gas at home, traditional gas exporters including Qatar decided to explore the European market, slightly reducing the EU's dependence on Russia for energy.

Despite Brussels' pursuit of diversified energy suppliers, it is unlikely to cut its energy ties with Moscow, which explains why some EU leaders are angry at the US Congress's unilateral sanction bill. Tougher sanctions will do little damage to US-Russia trade, which reached just $20 billion last year, but they might deal a major blow to EU-Russia trade, which once reached €338.6 billion ($400.4 billion) before dropping to €191.3 billion last year.

While the US' sanction bill may drive a wedge into the trans-Atlantic alliance, Russia could actually benefit from it by mobilizing support at home. And the resultant rift in Washington-Brussels ties could provide Moscow a moment of relief and enough time to use its diplomatic maneuvers amid toughening sanctions.

The author is a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Shanghai International Studies University.

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