Cut the Americans off from space? Here’s how Russia might respond to new US sanctions

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Cut the Americans off from space? Here’s how Russia might respond to new US sanctions
The new US sanctions on Russia have angered the Kremlin, especially after Donald Trump promised to repair relations. With the American president increasingly looking a busted flush, Moscow is likely to deliver a forceful response.

In the end, it didn’t take long. Just over six months after President Trump assumed office, the Washington establishment has, in the short to medium term at least, ended any hope of improved Russian-American relations. A humiliated Trump has been forced to publicly admonish his legislature for leaving him no option but to approve new coercive measures against Russia.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. On election night, Trump promised to have “great relations” with everyone. And that followed a campaign where he intimated he’d remove Obama’s, comparatively feeble, anti-Russia penalties. Now, not only has he been forced to codify them, but he’s also signed into law far stricter embargoes. Rarely, if ever, has an occupant of the Oval Office been so openly paralyzed by lawmakers and the deep state.

In truth, Trump only has himself to blame. Because while he self-identifies as a Reagan-esque historical-figure-in-waiting, bringing detente to the world, he’s delivered only bombast and chaos. Instead of carefully building a coalition which would allow his, undoubted, deal-making skills to shine, he’s spent the first eight months of his reign fighting the media and his own party. He also betrayed a bizarre infatuation with insulting TV presenters, something beneath the dignity of his office.

Viewed from afar

Meanwhile, in Moscow, there is incredulity, bafflement, and bewilderment as to how Russia ended up as public enemy number one again. And astonishment at the political civil war which has gripped its old Cold War rival, as the established order unites to delegitimize the outsider who succeeded in winning the White House.

Things boiled over on Wednesday evening when the Russian Prime Minister took to Facebook to chide Trump as “impotent.” A clearly angry Dmitry Medvedev writing how “the hope of improving our relationship with the new American administration is over,” adding the sanctions amounted to “a full-fledged economic war on Russia.” Medvedev held little back as he noted a change in “the balance of power in US political circles” with representatives dictating to the president in matters of foreign policy.

Medvedev’s invective seemed to confirm that the Kremlin will respond forcibly to the new measures. And Moscow has plenty of retaliatory options.

One favored by some opinion formers in the Russian capital is the idea of reducing diplomatic cooperation with the Americans to the bare minimum. After all, they say, if relations can’t be normalized, what is the point of both sides keeping hundreds of officials at their respective embassies? Such a proposal would see Russia pare back its staff levels in Washington to a few dozen essential personnel and force the US to operate within the same constraints at their locations here. A move like this would have significant repercussions for cross-cultural exchanges, visa issuing and, notably, espionage. But in a climate where even speaking to Russians is toxic in US politics, the Kremlin may feel it has little to lose.

Other analysts have suggested Moscow might withdraw cash invested in US Treasury securities and divert it to German or Chinese bonds instead. For instance, by May this year, Moscow held around $100 billion in T-bonds and might have more stored away in places like Switzerland and Luxembourg. However, a fire sale has potential risks for Russia itself and may prove financially foolhardy if alternatives prove less secure.

Another possible rejoinder is the prospect of canceling fertilizer exports to the US agriculture industry. That could damage Russian producers, who probably wouldn’t be able to divert all the excess to China. The same goes for notions of restricting uranium supplies where Russia is responsible for about twenty percent of American nuclear power plant needs. Here, Rosatom has previously said it wouldn't countenance halting supplies based on "long-term contracts subject to strict implementation."

Star Trek

There is one area where the Kremlin can markedly damage Washington’s interests, without much economic pain. And that’s in the realm of space. Because since the shuttle Atlantis staged its last flight, in 2011, NASA has been entirely reliant on Soyuz launchers to reach the cosmos. Should Putin decide to cancel agreements where Americans hitch a ride on Russian-led trips, for the first time in decades, US astronauts will be completely earth bound.

Also, the cost to Russia wouldn’t be much. At $80 million a seat, dropping Americans from the flights won’t break the bank. Plus, to make matters worse for the US, Boeing, which is developing its own proposed rival to Soyuz, is reliant on Russian rocket engines. But the implications for the International Space Station might rule this reprisal out.

North Korea is another area where Moscow can hurt Washington. Right now, the White House needs the Kremlin’s approval to punish Pyongyang through the UN Security Council. And while Putin agrees North Korea represents a danger, he has recently agreed on a joint approach to the issue with China which runs contrary to Trump's plans.

There’s also the pharmaceutical industry, where the Kremlin could ban direct imports of American medicines, forcing the likes of Pfizer and Eli Lilly to use Russian-made options, or partner with more local firms to maintain market share. That would damage a $560 million trade-line, which favors the Western partner.

Of course, there’s another route Putin could take. And that’s do nothing. At least for now. Instead, taking the moral high ground and watching the chasm between Trump and his legislature widen. All the while, waiting and watching to see if a split emerges between the EU and the US on existing sanctions. However, Medvedev’s talk of a “trade war” makes this unlikely. We can probably expect a move from Moscow and, knowing Putin; it could be something completely unexpected, but biting.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.