|SAVO PRELEVIC / AFP-GETTY IMAGES|
It makes sense, in a Burning-in-Hell sort of way, that Donald Trump's admiration for Vladimir Putin is more of a fawning obsequiousness. The two men could not be more different in background, but are remarkably similar as classic bullies and amoral narcissists for whom power and money are holy grails. While Putin by dint of position has been especially ruthless, both he and Trump will stop at nothing to slake their greed. And both are profoundly awful people who are methodically trying to destroy the nations they purport to lead. Yet for all of this, they have failed spectacularly in their goal to bring the U.S. and Russia closer as Putin has worked and schemed to restore his country to its Cold War perch as a global superpower with Trump's assistance.
This failure may seem counterintuitive since Trump, for his part, appears to be holding onto power more tightly than ever, although Special Counsel Robert Mueller may have something to say about that, as will Democrats after they retake the House and initiate impeachment proceedings.
In the meantime and sometimes in spite of itself, the system of laws Trump has so relentlessly tried to crush is working.
* A series of Obama-era sanctions backed by European Union countries, the very sanctions that Putin thought would go up in smoke as a consequence of Russia's cybersabotage of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the subject of numerous quid pro quo meetings between Russians and Trump campaign associates and later Trump administration officials.
* The 27-year-old Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, an 1991 law beyond Trump's oily reach requiring his administration to impose tougher sanctions because of Britain's determination that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal with a banned nerve agent.
* Additionally, the Senate, which is only narrowly Republican and has shown some spine compared to Vichy House Republicans who have tried repeatedly to discredit Mueller, the FBI and Justice Department, is contemplating tough new sanctions on Russian banks, which already have been squeezed by the Obama-era sanctions.
Despite the Trump-Putin bromance, the Russian leader is himself in trouble, which is richly ironic since dirty Russian money made Putin and saved Trump, if only barely as his business empire teetered on the brink of collapse for many years.
In 1998, Russia defaulted on $40 billion in debt, which accelerated the exodus of money at a time when Russia's feared intelligence agencies were joining forces with mobsters and oligarchs, and the fiercely authoritarian Putin, who was to soon succeed Boris Yeltsin as president, gave them a free hand so long as they added to his billions in personal fortune and strengthened his grip on the country.
By one estimate, some $1.3 trillion in illicit capital has poured out of Russia in the last 25 years, including many tens of millions of dollars that flowed into Trump Tower, Trump World Tower, Trump SoHo, his other luxury developments and Atlantic City casinos, all of which were used as convenient pass-throughs for laundering the illicit riches that kept the struggling Trump Organization afloat.
It is debatable how much sanctions have hurt.
This is because there is comparatively little trade between the U.S. and Russia, a mere $24 billion in 2017, which is 30th among the top 30 U.S. trading partners. (China, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Germany are the top five, in that order, with the China trade a robust $635 billion.)
Where sanction have stung are in less tangible areas. These include barring many of Putin's oligarch pals from entering the U.S., including Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg, two of Russia's richest men and persons of particular interest for Mueller.
Not being able to take your kids (or mistresses) to Disney World is one thing. But the new sanctions stemming from the 1991 law will be automatically triggered on or around August 22 -- because the Trump administration predictably has been dragging its feet -- if Russia does not provide assurances that it will no longer use such weapons. Which it will never do since it denies being involved in the first place.
The first phase includes a wider trade embargo, a ban on the export of anything of potential military use, a further crackdown on financial transactions and possible downgrade in diplomatic relations between the two countries. If Russia still refuses to play ball, a second phase would commence in 90 days that includes a far-reaching trade embargo (excluding food) and a ban on Aeroflot flights to the U.S.
Putin's failure to not just make progress in freeing the Russian economy from the sanctions but making matters worse is a setback him at home.
The tried-and-true Kremlin tactic since the first sanctions were imposed in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea has been to rally Russians around the flag and depict it as a besieged fortress. But after four years and in the face of the new sanctions, it is ordinary Russians themselves who are feeling besieged and Putin's popularity has been declining largely as a result.
Putin's approval rating is still elevated by American standards, but dropped 15 points to 64 percent from 79 percent during July, according to a leading poll, despite the much touted "success" of the Helsinki summit during which Putin's puppet masterly of Trump was so evident. (Trump's approval rating has been historically low since the outset of his presidency, hovering in the mid- to high-30s.)
The prospect of new sanctions has pummeled the ruble, which dropped to its lowest level against the dollar in two years, Aeroflot stock tanked and the turmoil prompted headlines in the Russian news media like "The Ruble Drowned in a Wave of Sanctions"
What deepens the crisis for Putin is that he has no good options, and it's much too late in the game to suddenly fess up to Russia's deep 2016 election interference, let alone the Skripal assassination attempt.
Putin has used "constant, low-grade conflict" such as incursions into Ukraine and continued hacking of U.S. institutions as "the only affordable way to restore Russia's eminence on the global stage," as David Sanger puts it in his just published The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age. Can Putin afford to continue this tactic in the face of mounting sanctions?
For Trump, amongst his many self-inflicted crises, is the yawning divide between himself and key players in his own administration who are not about to coddle Putin or condone Russia's behavior.
There are an awful lot of qualifiers, but things could be worse for those of us who rue the day Trump first fell in love with Russia -- and Putin.
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