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Explainer: How Trump Could Roll Back Obama's Russia Policies

  • Carl Schreck

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (left) faced scathing criticism during the campaign over his positive assessments of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (left) faced scathing criticism during the campaign over his positive assessments of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Less than two weeks before Donald Trump's stunning victory in the U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin codified a laundry list of complaints against Washington when he signed a law halting Moscow's participation in a bilateral treaty to reduce the countries' stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium.

Putin's demands in the law, including scrapping sanctions against Russia and reducing the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe, seemed exceedingly quixotic -- under a Democratic administration, at least.

But in a change of tack from the approach adopted by outgoing President Barack Obama, the Republican Trump said during his campaign that he wanted to improve ties with Moscow and cooperate more on issues like counterterrorism. Now that Trump has defeated his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, Russian officials are already voicing optimism that the president-elect is someone they can do business with.

Trump, who faced scathing criticism during the campaign over his positive assessments of Putin, portrays himself as a preeminent deal-maker, and he has said he plans to seek a deal with Moscow that's "great for America, but also good for Russia." Precisely what he would be willing to trade with Putin remains unclear, but he will inherit several cards from Obama. Here's a look at how Trump could roll back U.S. policies enacted under his predecessor.

Ukraine Sanctions

In response to Moscow's seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and subsequent backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Obama targeted Russian officials, businesspeople, and economic sectors with a wave of sanctions that helped push the Russian economy into recession.

Trump has already said he would examine the possibility of recognizing Russia's claim to sovereignty over Crimea and lifting sanctions. And because these sanctions were issued by executive order with a stroke of Obama's pen -- and required no Congressional action -- they would be easy for Trump to drop. On Day 1 he could issue his own executive order repealing Obama's executive orders and thus lift all of the Ukraine-related sanctions targeting Russia.

This, however, would likely trigger widespread outrage among U.S. lawmakers -- including many hard-liners in his own party --and give Trump's critics further ammunition to portray him as a Kremlin "puppet," a phrase Clinton invoked repeatedly during the presidential campaign and which Trump dismissed as nonsense. Given Trump's vow to strike a "great deal" for the United States with Putin, it is also unlikely he would drop the sanctions without securing something in return from Moscow.

Trump will have about six weeks to make a critical decision concerning the Ukraine-related sanctions after he takes office. Executive Order 13660, which declared a "national emergency" to deal with the Ukraine crisis and served as the foundation for the sanctions regime, expires in the first week of March.

Experts on U.S. sanctions policy say that if Trump were to repeal that order or let it expire, it would trigger a domino effect unraveling the several other executive orders based on that national emergency.

"That's because the Ukraine-related executive orders all build off and expand the scope of the national emergency declared in E.O. 13660," Erich Ferrari, a Washington-based lawyer specializing in sanctions, tells RFE/RL.

Peter Kucik, a former senior sanctions adviser at the U.S. Treasury, says it would be "highly unusual" if Trump were to simply let the underlying executive order expire in early March, because it would leave uncertainty about his administration's policies.

"A new executive order is the way major sanctions changes are usually made," Kucik says, adding that this would allow Trump to make his administration's position clear. Either way, he said, Trump will "have to make a decision."

If Trump lifts sanctions against Russia, it could prompt the European Union and other U.S. allies that have hit Moscow with sanctions to seriously reexamine their punitive measures.

The Magnitsky Act

Trump will have less flexibility with the 2012 law known as the Magnitsky Act, which was signed by Obama after it passed in both houses of Congress. The law introduced visa bans and financial sanctions on Russians deemed complicit in the 2009 death of whistle-blowing Russian auditor Sergei Magnitsky and other alleged rights abuses. The Kremlin has railed against the law, which has publicly hit 39 Russians with sanctions and an unspecified number secretly.

Putin demanded in the plutonium-deal law that Washington "repeal" the Magnitsky Act. Even though Republicans will control both houses of Congress, this likely would be a tall order for Trump. Congress would have to initiate the process of repealing the bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Even if Trump could not successfully spearhead an effort to repeal the Magnitsky Act, he could soften its impact. Under the law, it's up to the U.S. president to make additions to the blacklist (Obama, whose administration initially opposed the legislation, has delegated this function to the State and Treasury departments) and Trump could simply decline to add more names. The law also gives him the authority to remove names from the so-called Magnitsky List, though he would have to inform Congress of the justification for such a move, such as new evidence clearing the target of alleged rights abuses.

U.S. Military Presence In Eastern Europe

Russia has long chafed at NATO's eastward expansion since the fall of the Soviet Union. So Trump's repeated criticism of the alliance -- which has rattled officials in former Warsaw Pact countries wary of Moscow's intentions -- was likely music to the ears of many in the Kremlin.

Putin's new law demands that Washington scale back its military presence in nine NATO members in Eastern Europe -- including the three Baltic states -- to the levels prior to September 1, 2000, the day Washington signed the plutonium-disposal treaty. But the same month Trump takes office, several thousand U.S. Army personnel are set to deploy to Europe and subsequently fan out in some of the countries referred to in Putin's law. The deployment is part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, a U.S. initiative aimed at reassuring allies in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Ukraine conflict.

As commander in chief, of course, Trump could reconsider the deployment of these forces, some of which will be stationed in the Baltics and then rotate out after the arrival of multinational NATO forces. Trump could also halt the shipment of equipment to be prepositioned for the deployment of U.S. forces, says Simon Saradzhyan, a security expert and founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.

But Trump, who has tempered his criticism of NATO in recent months, would have more difficulty walking back U.S. troop commitments under the aegis of the alliance because it operates by consensus. Any NATO-approved deployment theoretically requires the consent of all alliance members to reverse course, Saradzhyan notes.

"Withdrawing U.S. troops from those deployments without NATO's consensus would be a very controversial move," he adds.

Bilateral Commission

More broadly, Putin's plutonium-treaty law demanded that Washington "reject...the unfriendly policies" toward Russia. As an initial gesture in this direction, Trump could make a bid to revive the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, a centerpiece of Obama's "reset" policy in his first term that facilitated cooperation on issues such as arms reductions, counterterrorism, and civil society. The Obama administration froze the commission following the Crimea annexation, and it has remained dormant amid the ongoing standoff over Ukraine.

Trump and his campaign pilloried Obama's handling of Russia as an abject failure, so it remains unclear whether the president-elect would seek to resurrect a commission that has its roots in the reset policy. But it does provide a ready-made framework for such cooperation, and based on comments coming from the Kremlin this week, officials in Moscow would likely be receptive to such a move.

Speaking in New York on November 10, Putin's spokesman said Trump and the Russian president hold "the same foreign-policy principles."

"That is probably a good basis for our moderate optimism that they will at least be able to start a dialogue to start to clear out the Augean stables in our bilateral relations," Peskov said in comments broadcast by Russia's state-owned Channel One television

With reporting by Reuters, Politico, and CNN
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