Will Trump Repeal Sanctions on Russia? A Conversation with an NSC Planner

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington.

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President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington.

We asked Kevin Harrington, deputy assistant to the president for strategic planning, whether he could square the mixed signals coming from the White House.

Will Donald Trump repeal the U.S. sanctions on Russia? With the White House emitting decidedly mixed signals, Defense One asked Kevin Harrington, the deputy assistant to the president for strategic planning at the National Security Council, whether he could square them.

Such signals include Nikki Haley’s first appearance at the United Nations Security Council, in which Trump’s U.N. ambassador said the sanctions would not be repealed “until Russia returns control over the [Crimean] peninsula to Ukraine,” a sentiment White House spokesman Sean Spicer has reiterated. But Vice President Mike Pence has suggested that some unspecified future behavior by Vladimir Putin might change things. Meanwhile, Michael Flynn may have discussed the matter with the Russian ambassador in December and lied about it since becoming national security advisor. Relatedly or not, Russian media and Kremlin officials appear to be convinced that a sanctions rollback is only a matter of time.

Harrington told Defense One that the Administration’s actual policy is more nuanced than Haley’s stark remarks may have suggested.

“I think the President is looking at this somewhat realistically and saying, ‘Russia is a very large country with 7,000 nuclear weapons, give or take, and 11 million barrels a day of oil production. Do you really want to be herding them to a really close relationship with China or is there a way to make this more constructive?’” he said on the sidelines of a Foundation for Defense of Democracy event in Washington, D.C.

Harrington also said that a change in the sanctions policy was neither imminent nor out of the question.

“I don’t say that there will never, ever be a change in the future. These things are always changing,” he said. “It’s not an exotic thing to be looking at if there is some way to change the relationship.”

One potential reason things might change, Harrington suggested, is if Russia and the United States team up to fight terrorists. “One of the difficulties we’ve certainly had is stabilizing the Middle East situation and so there’s a lot of things to discuss with Russia,” he said.

Harrington isn’t the only one floating that idea; Kremlin officials have been pitching it as well. In a readout of Vladimir Putin’s call with Trump from January, the Kremlin said, “The sides stressed the importance of rebuilding mutually beneficial trade and economic ties between the two countries’ business communities” — which was, perhaps, a reference to rolling back sanctions. “The two leaders emphasised that joining efforts in fighting the main threat – international terrorism – is a top priority.”

The White House readout of the same conversation describes Trump and Putin sharing hope that “the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern,” but makes no reference to “rebuilding economic ties.”

Harrington said he believed that some sanctions — specifically those dealing with Russia’s defense sector — should remain in place: “It’s obvious if weapons are being used to kill people in the Donbas region of Ukraine that you not sell them weapons.”

In 2014, the State Department changed the rules that govern the export of technology that could have military use. It prohibits companies from selling computer equipment, software, or munitions that could make Russia more lethal. Pentagon officials have warned that removing the restriction could make Russia a far more lethal adversary in the decades ahead.

On Wednesday, a group of senators introduced legislation that would require Trump to notify Congress before he can roll back sanctions placed on Russia for the illegal invasion of Crimea or activities associated with election meddling.

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