Just ahead of President Donald Trump’s delivery of the State of the Union, the State Department released a list of “influential Russians,” including several politicians and oligarchs, who could face sanctions in the future for their proximity to the Kremlin.
The list was later determined to be pulled from Forbes’ list of the World’s Billionaires—and not the result of careful research concerning each person’s relationship with the Kremlin—but nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin called its release a “hostile act.”
Steve Hall, a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, argues that between the release of this list and the minimal mentions of Russia in Trump’s first State of the Union, Putin is probably enjoying the developments that have occurred in U.S.-Russia relations over the past 48 hours. The conversation with Hall is adapted for print below.
Hall: Overall, it’s been a very confusing 48 hours for U.S.-Russia policy. Last summer, Congress—in an incredibly rare show of bipartisanship—passed a law saying we need to sanction Russia for election interference. And then—depending on your interpretation of it— the president chose to ignore that, or significantly weaken it by saying, in effect, ‘I don’t really think we need to impose sanctions…Just the fact that you guys in Congress passed a bill is having a deterrence type of effect in Russia.’
Then, there is confusion about this list of individuals, which turns out to be a cut-and-paste job from Forbes. Opposition figures in Russia are criticizing the idea of basically just using the top [richest] 100 Russians and putting them on some sort of list, which by the way, the State Department then turns around and says, “That’s not a sanctions list.”
If it’s confusing to us in America—which I think it is to most people—then Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs are going to see this as a confused policy toward Russia, specifically vis-à-vis sanctions, which is good for them. They’ll think the United States can’t get its act together; there are all these fissures and disagreements. Congress says one thing while the president says another thing. The CIA chief says there’s no let-up in terms of what the Russians are up to in trying to influence elections, and yet the White House says there’s isn’t a need to impose those sanctions.
Also, in the SOTU address, Russia was barely mentioned.
Trump referred to Russia and China as rivals, and said that they “need to be met with unmatched power.” That’s something that basically a junior high school student could have come up with. It’s not a particularly strong, unified message, which, is what Russia needs to see. So Putin was probably happy with the President’s State of the Union speech given the fact that Russia got almost no mention, and when it did get mentioned, it got mentioned at the same time as China.
So it’s been a good couple of days for Vladimir Putin because he’s seen a lot of fissures and cracks as opposed to what he really ought to see, which is a unanimous, strong message sent to Russia that says your behavior has been unacceptable. That hasn’t happened yet.