Author: Jahangir HUSEYNOV
Starting from the first of September, only the U.S. embassy to Moscow is eligible to hold the interviews for obtaining nonimmigrant visas to the United States. Consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok are no longer engaged in this type of activity. American diplomatic missions do not have enough people - instead of 1,200 employees, they now have only 455. According to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, this is Moscow's demand in response to "a whole series of hostile moves by Washington."
Now, in terms of the number of diplomatic missions, both countries have full parity. Donald Trump even thanked his Russian counterpart for helping to save the budget. True, the representative of the White House hurried to clarify that this was a sarcastic statement.
Russian lawmakers are talking about a counter-action - making it hard for Americans to obtain Russian visas. Lavrov suggested that the story with visas was a desire to "cause discontent of Russian citizens against the actions of the Russian government."
Last year, more than 190,000 Russians received American tourist visas. The number of American tourists was much less – 95,000. There will be no parity but many Russians will have to cover many thousands of kilometers from home to the embassy and stand for more than one month in queues before making the Trans-Atlantic flight. Along the way, Belarusians also suffer - for visas (if for the first time) they will have to go to Warsaw, Kiev or Vilnius. By the way, they lost the opportunity to receive them in Minsk after they, too, in 2008, demanded from the American diplomatic representation to reduce the staff from 35 people to 5.
The battle for the law
Formally, the requirement to reduce the American diplomatic mission by as much as 60% is a delayed response to the extradition of 35 Russian diplomats last December on charges of interfering in the presidential elections. In fact, this is a reaction to the adoption of the Law on Sanctions against Russia.
For the first time since 2014, when the war of sanctions began, the United States has adopted a full-fledged law. It includes all the decisions taken in recent years, sometimes tightening them, and also determines the conditions under which additional sanctions would be imposed automatically.
However, when the bill was submitted to the House of Representatives, some amendments were made to it, slightly softening the requirements for American and European companies in their cooperation with Russian partners. In particular, the threshold for participation of Russian companies in international projects was raised from 10% to 33%.
In addition, the presidential actions defined by the law are marked by streamlined verbs, which can imply "can", and not "must". As far as the European projects are concerned, the text of the law stipulates the need to agree with "local economic partners" the conditions for imposing any restrictions.
No doubt, the Congressmen from the Republican Party worked on these amendments, and the requirements of their colleagues from Europe were taken into account. This no one and does not hide. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted that the U.S. congressmen considered the wishes of the EU by changing the text of the law and stressed that the EU will not allow U.S. sanctions to affect the interests of European companies.
Still, sanctions gained the force of law. In order to cancel or change them, the president must file a detailed request to relevant committees of both houses of the Congress, and they have the right to review it within 30 days and then make their positive or negative verdict. As far as it is difficult, there is a story with the Jackson-Vanik amendment that limited trade with countries (more so in the USSR) that violate human rights. Only in 2012, although the USSR by that time had not existed for 20 years, this amendment was abolished for the sake of adopting a similar Magnitsky Law.
Knife in the back
When the bill was received by the president, Trump did not hesitate for too much and signed it several days later, stating that it was contrary to the Constitution.
And he is right. In fact, the U.S. foreign policy is an executive privilege of the president, and the Congress's attempts to selfishly hog the covers is a rather rare phenomenon in the country's history. The said law was adopted thanks to internal political instability, when the president does not even have full support inside the party that has nominated him. Trump is constantly arguing with the Republicans of both houses, and the other day, he sharply criticized the Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan and the head of the Republican majority in the Senate, Mitch McConnell for failing to organize Congressional support for his initiatives.
The Law on Sanctions Against Russia (it also includes provisions providing for countermeasures to the actions of Iran and North Korea) was imposed on him by legislators, most of whom are members of his party. Trump could technically use his right of veto, which was easily dealt with in the next ballot in September, and the notorious "pocket veto" when he would have held out with the decision before the holidays. In this case, according to the Constitution, the bill loses its power, and in September legislators would have to write a new one and run it through various commissions. However, the Republicans came up with a cunning move - they were on duty during the vacation period. So, formally the parliament was functioning.
That is why Trump did not hesitate too much - he was backed into a corner. His allies hope that the accusations of possible collusion with Russians during the last presidential elections will be lifted over time and the Congress will amend the law restoring the executive power’s authority to independently enact or cancel sanctions. Meanwhile, the lawmakers are doing their best not to leave Trump even a slightest opportunity to negotiate anything with Putin. And now, right after the holidays, the Senate will consider a bill banning the president from cooperation with Russia on cybersecurity issues without the approval of the Congress. It was drafted immediately after Trump's words that during the G20 summit in Hamburg he agreed with his colleague on joint actions in this direction.
Personal and state sympathies
Surprisingly, the relations with Russia have deteriorated during the whole period of Trump's presidency while his rhetoric about Russia remains virtually unchanged. With a little correction, but he continues to assure that he will manage to establish cooperation. A glance from within is a well-known Republican politician, former congressman, and now President of a large consulting company Michael Flanagan believes that "the personal relationship between President Trump and President Putin is much better than they ever were under President Obama - despite how difficult it is now official relations between the US and Russia."
Apparently, the reluctance to spoil relations with Moscow is the reason explaining the refusal of the State Department to tap nearly $80 million funding allocated by Congress to counter Russian propaganda.
The struggle of elites in the United States is closely followed from the other side of the Atlantic with sympathy for Mr. Trump. The signing of the ill-fated law was commented as follows: "He is a hostage of the Congress and anti-Russian hysteria" (Duma deputy Aleksey Pushkov).
It is possible that Putin assesses the situation in the same way by responding to sanctions with sanctions, but he is constantly stressing that there is no personal hostility between him and Trump. Both presidents were very enthusiastic about their first and so far the only meeting in Hamburg and have highly praised each other. As always, Trump talked to the people through Twitter: "Rex (Tillerson) and I had a great meeting yesterday with President Putin." "Today's American president is different… he reacts to the interlocutor’s arguments, argues, even if he does not like something," responded Putin.
According to experts, in addition to routine exchange of courtesies, the presidents could agree upon practical steps. Just a day after the summit, the Trump administration decided to suspend the CIA's secret program on equipping and training certain rebel groups fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. According to a White House official, this decision is part of the administration's efforts to improve relations with Russia. The date and time it was accepted remains a mystery, since National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo assure that the decision was agreed before the meeting in Germany.
In the meantime...
A week ago, the U.S. expanded the sanctions lists for North Korea, which also includes a number of Russian businessmen. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov immediately stated that Russia is working out retaliatory measures.
At the same time, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that his government was considering the possibility of delivery of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine. Moscow’s reaction was harsh. Chairman of the Federation Council's Committee on International Affairs Konstantin Kosachev said that the conversations about the supply of American weapons to Ukraine "causes regret" because "lethal weapons implies a military solution to the conflict". His colleague Leonid Slutsky spoke more sharply: "The American curators of Kiev do not need peace in Ukraine same as during the years of Obama's presidency."
While the presidents of the U.S. and Russia are exchanging compliments, the relations between both countries are rapidly deteriorating.