US Secretary of State Tillerson called his Russian counterpart on June 10 to discuss how the Saudi-Qatar standoff could be defused. They also agreed that the meeting of Foreign Ministry officials to discuss irritants in bilateral relations – agreed on at Secretary Tillerson’s meeting with President Putin in April – would be held on June 23.
This progress was stalled by the US Treasury announcement on June 20 of new, expanded sanctions against Russia. Reacting angrily, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) (and, separately, FM Lavrov) pointed out that there had been no new development to provoke this action, and called off the June 23 meeting. The Russian MFA reported that Secretary Tillerson telephoned FM Lavrov on June 22 and was apprised of Russian feelings on the sanctions. Russia also threatened retaliatory actions at a time of its choosing.
The sanctions themselves were more symbolic than substantial: they added 38 individuals and companies to an existing list of over 100, who are subject to visa bans, asset freeze and financing restrictions. Their significance was in their timing, coinciding with Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s visit to Washington for US support. There were, however, nuances in the messages he received. The meeting with President Trump was a brief “drop-in” after his call on Vice President Pence. The White House read-out of both these meetings said they supported “peaceful resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine” and talked about Ukraine’s economic reform and anti-corruption efforts. The Vice President also mentioned the Minsk Agreements. There was no reference, explicitly or implicitly, to Russia. It was left to Defence Secretary Mattis to explicitly express US support to Ukraine “in the face of threats to sovereignty, to international law or to the international order”. A Department of Defence spokesperson went much further, criticizing “aggressive Russian actions”. A bipartisan House of Representatives delegation headed by Speaker Ryan met President Poroshenko and echoed the Defence Secretary’s line.
A more draconian sanctions bill is now progressing through the US Congress, seeking to significantly widen the scope of US sanctions, restrict executive freedom to revoke them and require the President to submit annual reports on their implementation. The US Senate voted overwhelmingly (98-2) on June 14 for the bill, which envisages restrictions on collaboration and investment in (among others) the transport, metallurgy and energy sectors of Russia and, far more importantly, sanctions on entities anywhere, which are involved in such collaboration and investment. This last provision would have an impact not only on Russia, but also on Europe’s energy collaboration with Russia (see next section). If the House of Representatives passes the bill with a similarly large majority, it would have enough support to override a Presidential veto.
June 30, 2017