In Other News: US Sanctions Russia, US-Mexico Relations & More – March 4, 2021

March 4, 2021

The Biden administration has made good on threats of new sanctions on Russia over the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, designating seven individual Russian officials and more than 12 government entities. These include the head of Russia’s federal security service, the head of the country’s prison system, the Russian prosecutor general, and other officials in the Kremlin and the Russian defense apparatus. The sanctions announced thus far were designed to work in coordination with EU sanctions, and the Biden administration is also planning new sanctions related to Russian hacking of U.S. government entities and private sector companies. Separately, the U.S. announced a $125 million military aid package for Ukraine, which will include two patrol boats for the defense of its territorial waters, radar equipment, satellite imagery and analysis, and military training. Another $150 million is congressionally approved for military aid to Kyiv for in 2021, conditional upon demonstrable progress on military reforms, including improved transparency in procurement. U.S. actions thus far this year address two of the major flashpoints in the U.S.-Russia relationship – cyberattacks on the U.S. and military aggression in Ukraine. These are and should continue to be top security priorities for the U.S. However, they are not the only instances of Kremlin aggression that merit U.S. and its European allies’ focus. Results of an investigation by U.S., Russian, German, and Estonian media and anti-corruption outfits suggest that Russia has mounted aggressive influence operations throughout the Baltics, Eastern Europe, and Africa. These operations, spearheaded by Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin (who is on the FBI Most Wanted list for conspiracy to defraud the U.S.), are serving to disseminate pro-Russian “expert opinion” and attempt to help bring about election outcomes seen as favorable to Russia. The U.S. and its allies in Europe should take note that Russia is not confining its grandiose influence ambitions to countries with the defense capabilities to detect and counter them, and that a broad, multilateral defense structure may prove essential to containing Kremlin aggression.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) this week marked a pivot on U.S. immigration policy, with Biden signaling a desire to return to full cross-border trade relations and openness to expanding pathways to legal immigration. However, despite Biden’s intention to reverse a number of the previous administration’s immigration policies, he has left in place a Trump-era policy that authorizes immigration enforcement agents to immediately deport persons found to have crossed the border illegally back to Mexico before providing them with a chance to request asylum, likely to prevent a flood of new entrants large enough to trigger a border crisis. In the days leading up to the meeting, AMLO expressed support for large increases in the number of work visas available to migrants from Mexico and Central America more broadly, though no concrete agreements were reached on that issue. Also conspicuously absent from the two countries’ official statement on the talks was any specific mention of Covid-19 vaccines, though AMLO had indicated interest beforehand in securing a U.S. commitment to share its supply or push U.S. pharmaceutical companies to sell more to Mexico. AMLO has been largely pragmatic in his dealings with the U.S. and will need to work with the new administration to tackle the pandemic, which has killed nearly 190,000 people in Mexico so far, to accelerate economic recovery following a staggering 8% GDP contraction last year.

A U.S. contractor was killed in a rocket attack yesterday on the Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, which houses U.S., Coalition, and Iraqi troops. Official Iraqi sources report that ten rockets were fired at the base, while other sources put the number slightly higher, at more than a dozen. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. However, it comes just a few days after a U.S. airstrike on facilities in Syria tied to the operations of Iran-backed militia groups (and just two days before Pope Francis is scheduled to land in Baghdad for his first official visit to Iraq). Ongoing, elevated U.S.-Iran tensions are continuing to erupt in proxy battles in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, even as the U.S. attempts to chart a new course in the relationship by pivoting from the confrontational approach of the Trump administration to a return to the negotiating table. Tehran rejected an offer this week by the U.S. and the EU to restart nuclear talks with the aim of the U.S returning to the multilateral agreement that it signed in 2015 and then exited in 2018. Tehran’s refusal is widely understood to be a bid for opening concessions, specifically a degree of certainty that restarting talks would trigger sanctions relief. This latest attack on U.S. forces – for which the White House has warned that a military response could be forthcoming – will make the Biden administration’s intended policy shift on Iran more difficult. But de-escalation is in Iran’s best interest, both as the clearest path forward for a relaxation of sanctions, and as its neighbors in the region have moved to set aside their historic animosities aside with the goal of more effectively countering the threat of destabilizing actions by Tehran.