Trump adviser's ouster hampers Russia gambit
Washington, 15 February (Argus) — Congressional opponents of US president Donald Trump's proposed improvement in relations with Russia are taking advantage of turmoil in the White House to make the case for preserving sanctions on the Russian oil sector.
Trump on 13 February asked his national security adviser Michael Flynn to step down, barely three weeks into the job, after revelations that Flynn prior to taking office had discussed possible sanctions relief with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The White House contends Flynn's conversations did not break the law, but his denial the two had discussed sanctions when briefing vice president Mike Pence and other White House officials eroded Trump's trust in him.
The rollback of sanctions "is almost impossible now with everything that has happened," Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) said today.
"Flynn's resignation does not obviate the need for a broad investigation into Russia's interference (in) the 2016 election," senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) said yesterday. Cardin, ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, and nine other senators representing both parties have advanced legislation to codify the sanctions that former president Barack Obama's administration imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
The sanctions prohibit the sale or transfer of shale, deepwater and arctic drilling equipment and technology to Russian oil companies and bar debt financing to Russia's state-controlled Rosneft and other state-run firms.
Russia's oil output last year reached a post-Soviet era high of just under 11mn b/d. But restrictions on dollar and euro funding have forced the Russian government to draw down its foreign reserves, raising the prospect of heavier tax burden on the Russian oil producers. ExxonMobil in 2014 had to walk away from an Arctic joint venture with Rosneft, but the major said it would return if the US sanctions are lifted.
White House officials, following Trump's 28 January conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin, suggested that cooperation in fighting Islamist group Isis would be sufficient for lifting the sanctions, omitting the reference to Ukraine. Russia denies direct military involvement in eastern Ukraine.
But Flynn's resignation has prompted the White House to somewhat modify its position. "President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in Ukraine and return Crimea," the White House said yesterday, adding that Trump still wants to "get along with Russia" to address the threat of Isis.
"I welcome news that the White House has laid out a clear and unequivocal stance on the Russian aggression in Ukraine," said senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), who joined Cardin in co-sponsoring Russia sanctions legislation.
But many of the new administration's domestic and foreign allies still are uncertain about Trump's stance. EU foreign commissioner Federica Mogherini — on a visit to Washington on 9-10 February — shared her impression that the US may no longer coordinate its Russia sanctions policy with European allies.
"This relationship [with Russia] that seems to exist and seems to be preeminent and seems to be driving so much of the conversation within the White House, to me, has still not righted itself," Corker said today.
The Kremlin has welcomed Trump's election as a chance to improve relations with Washington. "We hope that our relations will be restored in full and in all areas," Putin said last week. But "this does not depend only on us. It also depends on the US."
"We act on the assumption that the US first needs to form its team and decide who will conduct a dialogue with us and in what areas," Putin said.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov tomorrow plans to meet with secretary of state Rex Tillerson in Bonn, Germany, on the margins of the G20 summit of major world economies, according to the Russian foreign ministry. The State Department would not confirm the meeting.