U.S. sanctions as means for Putin to mobilize electorate
The introduction of new sanctions by the United States was hardly a shocker to Russia. Indeed, Moscow may be a bit confused at the fact that the events are developing a bit off their plan: the Kremlin did not expect such a sharp blow and in such a short time after the presidential election. But in general, Russia sees the whole situation as clear and predictable.
I think Russia will present a double response to the U.S. move. In statements and general rhetoric, Russia will show it’s taking up the challenge. At the same time, Russia will demonstrate a stubborn and rigid stance. At least this will be the case until presidential elections in Russia in early 2018.
Russia at the margins of "underwater diplomacy" will seek opportunities to mitigate or circumvent these sanctions, and in to have them completely removed in the future
By and large, this kind of development is beneficial for Putin and his team, because it keeps his electorate mobilized, reducing the chances for internal protests and internal pluralism. So there is no doubt that the Russian authorities will take advantage of the situation.
With regard to a more pragmatic aspect, it is clear that the sanctions do not play into the hands of the Russian ruling elite – they hurt them. Therefore, Russia at the margins of "underwater diplomacy" will seek opportunities to mitigate or circumvent these sanctions, and in to have them completely removed in the future.
Russia is not so much surprised by Trump's decision to sign the law on sanctions, they didn’t quite expect though such unanimity in the American political elite, and that both the U.S. Congress and Senate would be able to gain so many votes to pass the bill. Apparently, this came as a surprise to Moscow.
Meanwhile, this whole thing with the delay of Trump’s signing of the ‘Russia Sanctions Act’ and his comments on this legislation (claiming it’s unconstitutional) is about transferring the accents to the plane of the internal political struggle in the U.S. This was expected. Even had Trump not signed the sanctions act, this would also have been an element of the internal political struggle, and this would have also been a tactical step on the part of Trump. Signing the act is fighting the opposition one way, while not signing it is fighting the same opposition by other means. Therefore, the signing by Trump was not so important for Russia.
In response to new sanctions, Russia can demonstrate its intransigence to America, including at Ukraine’s expense, and use all its levers of pressure on the United States
As for the reaction to the sanctions issue by Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, it has an internal Russian element into it. It is known that Medvedev in the Russian political context has always been regarded as a supporter of reconciliation and partnership with America and the Western world in general. Such a statement on his part is an indication that a picture of unity among Russian authorities will now be created: they will show that there is no opposing opinion, everything is clear, "the state is endangered," so everyone is quickly teaming up around Putin.
In response to new sanctions, Russia can demonstrate its intransigence to America, including at Ukraine’s expense, and use all its levers of pressure on the United States. Ukraine should not expect that after the introduction of new sanctions, Putin will give up, withdraw his troops from Ukraine, return Crimea, and reduce the intensity of hostilities in Donbas. Rather, he will do the opposite. He is unlikely though to take any drastic steps (for example, to launch a large-scale war). But the fact that Russia's agility will sharply diminish, the status quo will be maintained, and that all possible means of pressure will be applied to Ukraine – this is precisely what we should expect in the near future.
For Russia, another problem lies in the fact that they have nothing to respond with to the U.S. on the issue of sanctions. There are only certain areas in which America is somewhat dependent on Russia (nuclear energy or individual projects). But breaking all ties with the U.S. would not be beneficial for Russia because Moscow understands the extent to which the U.S. resources of economic influence dominate over those of Russia. Therefore, most likely, the political form of pressure by Russia will be maintained. And Ukraine will not be the only country to be affected. There are also Syria, Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and the European theater of confrontation. Therefore, probably, all forces of the empire will not be focused on Ukraine, but Kyiv won’t see any easing either, that’s for sure.
Maksym Rozumny is a Doctor of Political Sciences, head of the department for the political system development at the National Institute for Strategic Studies