The Trump administrationâ€™s new sanctions against Russia, imposed last week in response to the poisoning in the U.K. of a former Russian spy and his daughter, are welcome. They are also confusing, contrasting as they do the words and behavior of President Donald Trump himself, who has repeatedly and publicly lavished praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
One hopes the real U.S. strategy is to stand strong against Russiaâ€™s transgressions. But unless the president speaks up forcefully, no amount of punishment will deter Putin from his agenda.
The Trump administration has found many ways to stand up to Russia. It has built on Crimea-related sanctions begun by the Barack Obama administration, approved the sale of so-called lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, struck Syrian military sites after Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons and expelled scores of Russian diplomats from the U.S.
On the other hand, there has been some backsliding, which reflects the presidentâ€™s own apparent reservations. The administration has on several occasions dragged its feet on implementing sanctions passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress, which Trump called â€śflawed legislation.â€ť
Most seriously, on the issue of Russian election meddling, Trump has publicly sided with Putin against U.S. intelligence agencies. He has also denied that Russia is an American foe, and has called the news media â€śthe real enemy of the people.â€ť
Sanctions have some direct effects, They work mainly by marking a state as a global pariah. So they have a strong effect only if they are accompanied by clear moral condemnation and an international effort to pressure the offending country to change its ways.
Trumpâ€™s job is to back up the sanctions with a clear message to Putin that the U.S. stands with Europe in its intolerance for murder attempts on foreign soil and Russiaâ€™s broader aggressions. His administration cannot make that clear without his public support.