OPINION | US-Russia relations may be on ice, but they aren't frozen — yet
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There is a new bill sitting on the president’s desk, “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (“H.R. 3364”), awaiting his signature.  The bill is designed to punish Russia, Iran and North Korea across a broad scope of industries, to include financial services, mining, and energy, and is getting the most attention for what it would mean to the Russian government.  

The bill has passed both the House and Senate with super majorities — 419-3 in the House, and 98-2 in the Senate, making it veto proof should the president decide not to sign it. The bill codifies existing economic sanctions that the Obama administration put in place via Executive Order for the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and Crimea; the new law covers additional punishment for the Russian interference in the last presidential election.  

As much as a dealmaker the president makes himself out to be, the bill will tie his hands with regard to any unilateral power he has in making a deal with the Russians, especially in the industries specifically outlined in the bill, without separate Congressional approval. With the inevitability of this bill passing, the Russians have responded by ordering the U.S. to cut 60 percent of the diplomatic staff, a total of 755 from the embassy and consulate staff. This is also in response to the U.S. expelling 35 Russians and seizing two Russian properties in the U.S. that were believed to be used as centers of gravity for Russian intelligence collection operations, all done during the Obama administration to also address Russian interference in the election.

The president will have to sign this bill to avoid poor optics that opposing the bill will bring — given already there is a investigation taking place regarding the interference in the election by the Russians and the possibility of Trump campaign members’ involvement.

A few months back, Russian spokesman Dmitry Petrov said the U.S.-Russia relationship was at the "lowest possible point" and "worse" than after World War II.  This did not happen overnight — the Obama administration should have been confronting Russia on many issues over the years, and failed to do so. Even with six months to go in his administration, President Obama was afraid to confront Russia in real time before the election for attacking our systems.  With the relationship at a 25 year low, now is the time to focus more on Russia — build a U.S.-based team of experts who can work with the president to navigate the relationship to a more cordial and less adversarial relationship.

Will this bill be worth the effort and punish Russia for their involvement in our election?  After all, the current sanctions have not changed the behavior of the Russians; they still remain involved in Ukraine, and have further entrenched themselves inside of the Syria.  With that civil war coming to a close, we can expect Vladimir Putin to fully support the Assad regime in the rebuilding of his country.  Perhaps the expulsion of U.S. personal is more based on politics — Putin is facing an election in the coming year, and has to look strong in the eyes of his people in response to the U.S. sanctions.  

The real question is what are the unintended consequences for our friends of these sanctions. The international community, especially the European Union, can’t be happy with the type of restrictions places on individuals and companies who were looking to do business with Russia on large energy infrastructure type projects and now will be restricted.  

It’s rare that an incoming administration is not saddled with issue that the previous failed to address.  Our current relationship with Russia highlights the necessity of a leader to look over the horizon and project how today’s actions will impact the future.  History has shown failure to address issues today often can lead to great tragedy down the road — one just has to look at the American Civil War and the failure to address slavery at the birth of the nation. Let’s agree the relationship is as low as it should be allowed to be, and work towards mending it, even with the sanctions Congress has established.   

This president came into office with a clear intent of changing the relationship with Russia, but at this point, he’s going to be forced into a very narrow lane if he wants to get something done.  If the Russian behavior changes, then the sanctions will have worked, and with the assistance of Congress, perhaps get lifted — but since the bill won’t come into effect for a month or so, I don’t expect to see any warming of U.S.-Russia relations for at least through the end of this year.  

To be effective, the president is going to have to work hard in order to fix a very failed foreign policy relationship between the U.S. and Russia. He’s going to need to recruit a new dream team of Russian experts; individuals and specialists who have been right in the past when it comes to predicting what will Russia do in response to our current sanctions. The worst thing we can do is close down the communication channels.  

Army Major Mike Lyons (Ret.) is a senior fellow with the Truman National Security Project, an organization dedicated to education and advocacy work on national security and foreign policy, and is a military analyst for CBS News.

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