MOSCOW – The latest U.S. sanctions, enacted three weeks ago, may not put a dent in President Vladimir Putin’s popularity at home or affect his policies beyond Russia’s borders.
But they may have escalated a Cold War-style spiral of moves and countermoves that could keep U.S.-Russian relations in a deep freeze for years.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow announced Monday that it will temporarily stop issuing nonimmigrant visas in Russia and permanently curtail visa operations outside Moscow as it works to comply with Russia’s demand that the U.S. mission in the country reduce its staff by 755.
Moscow’s order “calls into question Russia’s seriousness about pursuing better relations,” the U.S. Embassy said in its announcement.
The move will mean delays for the hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens who apply for nonimmigrant visas to the United States each year. And although Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to rule out an immediate reciprocal response, his tone was frosty. Washington, he suggested, is seeking “provoke discontent of Russian citizens against the actions of the Russian government.”
Also Monday, Putin named Anatoly Antonov, a deputy foreign minister known for his tough remarks about the United States, as Russia’s new ambassador to Washington. In his public comments, Antonov has accused the United States and its NATO allies of seeing other countries as “second-class states” and blamed the United States for “tearing apart” the system of international security.
Antonov will replace Sergey Kislyak, who has become a central figure in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The back and forth that led to Monday’s announcement had its origin several months ago. Putin announced the embassy staffing cuts as a response to President Barack Obama’s decision in December to expel 35 Russian diplomats and revoke access to two Russian diplomatic compounds, to punish the Kremlin for its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But the Russian leader made his move only last month, after Congress passed a measure expanding and codifying into law U.S. sanctions over election meddling, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its proxy war in eastern Ukraine and its involvement in Syria.
Moscow has characterized those sanctions, reluctantly signed into law by President Trump on Aug. 2, as proof that the country is under attack from anti-Russian elites in the West, in particular the backers of Hillary Clinton’s failed run for the presidency.
The new sanctions codify measures ordered by Obama between 2014 and 2016 that target Russia’s financial services, defense and energy industries, among others. They also affect companies involved in Russian offshore oil projects, as well as Russian oil or gas pipeline construction inside the country, and entities that do business with Russian intelligence agencies or the Russian military.
Unlike previous sanctions, which could have been lifted or softened in the unlikely event that Putin returned Crimea to Ukraine or stopped supporting pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, the new measures decouple the punishment from Moscow’s behavior, and make it difficult for Trump to lift them. So there is little incentive for Putin to change.
U.S. officials calculate that the sanctions, combined with mounting domestic discontent, will “lead to the mellowing of Russia at the point when it will be time for Putin to leave power – whether this happens in 2024, 2030 or even later,” said Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
In the short run, Russian and U.S. observers agree, sanctions are likely to have little effect on Putin’s popularity as a leader who can stand up to this threat from outside.
A recent poll by the independent Levada Center suggests that Russians support a stiff response: Asked to list the country’s priorities, nearly half said that reasserting Russia’s position as a world power should be a foreign policy priority, while only 27 percent said the Kremlin’s main task should be promoting good relations with other countries.
A March poll by Russia’s government-linked Public Opinion Research Center found that 35 percent of Russians believe Western sanctions have worked in Moscow’s favor. An April survey by the independent Levada Center suggested that 65 percent of Russians have a positive attitude toward the three-year-old ban on food imports that Putin imposed as a response to Western sanctions. Moscow has presented the counter-sanctions as the cause of a Russian agriculture boom.
At a busy Moscow food market recently, Nadezhda, a cheesemonger who didn’t want her last name to appear in an American newspaper, said she – and a lot of her customers – see the ban on foreign cheeses as something “the U.S. did to us” because “the West is afraid of Russia and wants it to be weak.”
“As long as people continue to think that it’s the fault of the U.S. that they can’t get Parmesan, and not the policy of their own government, it feeds the narrative of a hostile West punishing them,” said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Meanwhile, Putin’s popularity rating has been above 80 percent since 2014, and a June survey that found that 87 percent of Russians trust Putin to represent their country on the world stage. Putin, likely to seek a new six-year term next March, can only benefit from the impression he is fending of an outside enemy.
“The sanctions are a gift to the Russian political system,” said Alexey Potomkin, an independent foreign policy consultant in Moscow.
Still, a sanctions war, even one that supports Putin at home, is not the narrative that the Kremlin hoped to be employing now, said Mark N. Katz, a Russia specialist at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
“He really seems to have had some expectations that Trump would be more “reasonable” than Obama,” Katz wrote in an email. “I can’t help but feel, then, that Putin must be disappointed that his Trump gambit has failed.”
Russian lawmakers, who drank champagne toasts following Trump’s election, also seem disappointed. On Monday, senior lawmakers were suggesting a “mirror” retaliation to the U.S. visa move that could affect Americans seeking Russian visas.
But Lavrov, at a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Moscow, remained cagey about the Kremlin’s next move.
“I can only say one thing: We won’t take it out on American citizens,” he said.