Staunton, February 2 – Talks between representatives of two governments are often not about what the participants say they are and sometimes not even important for what was really discussed. Instead, it is the fact of the talks and the way in which one or the other side presents them that are what really matters.
That certainly appears to be the case with the visit by three senior Russian security officials, including two under sanctions, to Washington, a visit that the sides say was focused on cooperation in the struggle against terrorism but that many in the United States was about much more besides.
However that turns out to be – and however inappropriate one may believe that any such meeting is – the reaction of the Russian media suggests that the Russians got precisely what they wanted: an official US government declaration that sanctions can be lifted “in the interests of national security.”
Responding to criticism that Washington had allowed in two officials under sanction, the State Department said that “in the interests of national security, US sanctions against Russia may be lifted,” a declaration that the Russian media have focused on today in ways that suggest Moscow wanted to use the meeting as a way to force Washington to remind everyone of that.
(For Russian coverage focusing on that statement, see among others
snob.ru/selected/entry/133955, novayagazeta.ru/news/2018/02/02/139148-gosdep-vlasti-ssha-mogut-vremenno-priostanvalivat-deystvie-sanktsiy-v-interesah-nationalnoy-bezopasnosti, medusa.io/news/2018/02/02/gosdep-o-visite-naryshkina-v-ssha-v-interesah-natsionalnoy-bezopasnosti-sanktsii-mozhno-priostanovit and spektr.press/news/2018/02/02/gosdep-ssha-obyasnil-priostanovku-sankcij-protiv-glav-specsluzhb-rf/.)
Few binding Congressional actions regarding foreign affairs are passed, however large the majorities in either or both houses, without what is typically referred to as a national security waiver, a grant to the president of the right to suspend the provisions of these actions in the name of national security.
President Trump has clearly decided not to follow through on the intent of the August 2, 2017, personal sanctions act: His administration has provided a list of sorts of Russian officials who might be subject to such sanctions, but he has not imposed any new sanctions on them or others since the measure was passed.
The Kremlin is clearly counting on him to continue that course, and the meeting of the Russian security chiefs with their American counterparts in Washington was yet another clever move to remind everyone -- including officials in the American capital -- that in the name of “national security,” the president can ignore most Congressional actions.
Vladimir Putin is certainly hopeful that Trump may use that justification to lift not just sanctions on two senior intelligence officers but on other US sanctions more generally.