US-Russia relations could be headed for another deep freeze if US lawmakers have their way in punishing Moscow for the alleged poisoning of Russian opposition leader. Image: Twitter

On September 24, a bipartisan group of US senators proposed sanctions against Russian officials over the alleged poisoning of the opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Siberia recently. 

A targeted bill titled Holding Russia Accountable for Malign Activities Act of 2020 has been introduced by five prominent senators – Chris Coons, Marco Rubio, Ben Cardin, Mitt Romney and Chris Van Hollen.  

The bill directs the administration to determine if the Kremlin has violated US laws prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons. 

Significantly, it also requires a report on the personal wealth amassed by the corrupt practices of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.

Senator Coons, who is leading the initiative, represents Delaware, the senate seat held by Joe Biden for 36 years from January 1973 till he took over as vice-president. 

The senators have demonized Putin. Senator Coons said, “this bipartisan bill seeks to hold Putin and his inner circle accountable.”

To quote Senator Rubio: “This legislation will also require the administration to make public Putin’s wealth and level of corruption.” Senator Romney stressed: “The attack on Alexei Navalny puts a spotlight on the corruption and lawlessness of the Putin regime.”  

The bill becomes another template of US domestic politics, forcing the hand of President Donald Trump.

On September 5, Trump refused to condemn Russia, saying: “So I don’t know exactly what happened. I think it’s tragic, it’s terrible, it shouldn’t happen. We haven’t had any proof yet but I will take a look.” 

US officials are finding it hard to get President Donald Trump’s ear when it comes to Russia. Photo: AFP

Trump added tauntingly: “It is interesting that everybody’s always mentioning Russia, and I don’t mind you mentioning Russia, but I think probably China at this point is a nation that you should be talking about much more so.”

On September 21, when asked again, Trump shrugged it off, saying: “Ahhh, we’ll talk about that at another time.” 

The Beltway is up in arms, pushing Trump to take an anti-Russia stance. Trump’s reticence is dampening Europe’s initial enthusiasm to punish Russia.

Following an EU foreign ministers meeting on September 21 in Brussels, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU Foreign Affairs Council will have a comprehensive discussion on Russia next month.

Conceivably, the senators’ move comes in the backdrop of the US Justice Department prosecutor John Durham’s continued investigation on the intelligence community’s findings about Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

The bipartisan opinion in the Beltway is that Russia continues to interfere in the US elections, but Trump is ignoring it since the Kremlin focuses on weakening Biden’s electoral prospects.

A hard-hitting report in Politico on September 23 insinuated that the CIA’s famed Russia House experts at Langley are getting demoralized, as “Director Gina Haspel has become extremely cautious about which, if any, Russia-related intelligence products make their way to Trump’s desk,” since POTUS is “known to erupt in anger whenever he is confronted with bad news about Moscow.” 

US Senator Marco Rubio is one of the sponsors of the bill. Photo: AFP/Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

The report mentioned that Trump “has also been working to bring the intelligence community further under his control since his impeachment acquittal in February.”

Senator Rubio, one of the sponsors of the bill on Russia, happens to be the acting chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  

No matter the skulduggery in US domestic politics, the fact remains that Russia is such a toxic substance in the Beltway that any thaw in the relationship is becoming impossible for the foreseeable future.

Biden would have no problem with it. But Trump would have sought to improve Russia ties as his presidential legacy.  

There is a wave of anti-Russia sentiments sweeping across European capitals following the Navalny incident.

Sabine Fischer, who heads the Russia desk at the German Institute for International Security Affairs, a foreign ministry think tank, wrote this week: “For years, Berlin has been trying to strike a balance between punitive action to fend off Russian transgressions, and attempts to preserve dialogue.

“It faced a lot of criticism over this, internally, from EU partners and, increasingly, from Washington … Germany will likely not (yet) give up on dialogue with Russia, even after this most recent (Navalny) blow. But Berlin has lost faith and will invest less and less in preserving a functioning relationship.” 

Of course, from the perspective of the transatlantic alliance, Washington would welcome the unraveling of the Russian-German axis. But it will have serious consequences for European security and will generally harden Russian attitudes.  

Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin alleges a covert plot by the US. Photo: AFP/Mikhael Klimentyev/Sputnik

The Kremlin will only see the senators’ move as a calculated ploy to discredit Putin and as part of a project to engineer regime change in Russia. Russian authorities are circling the wagons. They have frozen Navalny’s bank account and seized his assets in Moscow.

Russian intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin has alleged a covert American operation to fuel a color revolution in Belarus. On the Navalny case, Moscow is insisting that the European partners are deliberately scandalizing the Kremlin.

Naryshkin said in a statement on September 21 that Moscow “has observed intensive activity by some Western countries in fuelling the so-called Navalny case. It is increasingly evident that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is one of the main targets … It is extremely important for Washington to have this project aborted, because it calls into question the White House’s plans for stepping up supplies of US liquefied gas to Europe.” 

The fallout of all this is going to be profound for the Sino-Russian alliance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hit out last week: “It is time to stop applying Western metrics to our actions and stop trying to be liked by the West at any cost … the West is wittingly or unwittingly pushing us towards this analysis.

“It is likely to be done unwittingly. However, it is a big mistake to think that Russia will play by Western rules in any case, just like thinking this in terms of China.”  

These developments portend the last rites for Henry Kissinger’s thesis that detente with Russia would be the essential pre-requisite for an effective US strategy to meet the challenge of rising China. Washington sees both Russia and China as “revisionist” powers to be countered.