This week, amidst generally holding ceasefire in Ukraine and with Russia continuing to constructively engage in the multilateral process of normalisation of Eastern Ukrainian crisis, the US leadership once again shown its hand on the issue of Russian relations with the West. Instead of pausing pressure or starting to return trade and diplomatic relations toward some sort of normalisation, the US actually continued to raise pressure on Russia.
First, earlier in the week, the US issued a decision to terminate Russia's designation as a beneficiary developing country in its Globalised System of Preferences (GSP) - a system that allows developing economies' exporters somewhat 'preferential' access to the US markets at reduced tariffs. This decision was notified on May 7th and officially published by the White House on Friday when it came into force.
The US GSP is a program designed to aid economic growth in developing economies (more than 100 countries and territories) by allowing duty-free entry for up to 5,000 products.
According to the White House statement, President Obama "…determined that Russia is sufficiently advanced in economic development and improved in trade competitiveness that it is appropriate to terminate the designation of Russia as a beneficiary developing country effective October 3, 2014."
The likely outcome of this is, however, uncertain. Russian exports to the US in the categories covered by the GSP programme are primarily in the areas of strategically important materials, including rare-earth metals and other key inputs into production for US MNCs. The same MNCs can purchase these inputs indirectly from outside the US. So, if anything, the White House decision is harming its own companies more than the Russia producers by de facto raising the cost of goods with low degree of substitution.
While, personally, I do not think Russia is a developing country - it is a middle income economy - in my opinion, the best course of diplomacy (in relation to trade) is opening up trade markets and reducing (not raising) trade barriers. This is best targeted by lowering tariffs first and foremost in the areas where private (not state) companies supply exports. GSP is a scheme that should be expanded to include all economies, not just developing ones and the US and Europe should pursue more open trade with Russia and the rest of the CIS. Sadly, the Obama Administration is using trade as a weapon to achieve geopolitical objectives (notably of questionable value, but that is secondary to the fact that trade should not be used as a weapon in the first place, but as a tool for helping achieve longer term objectives closer economic and social cooperation).
In a related matter, the US VP, Joe Biden, openly confirmed this week that the US has directly pressured its European allies to impose sanctions against Russia. On October 3rd, speaking at Harvard University, Joe Biden said that: “It is true - they [European countries] did not want to do that [impose sanctions against Russia] but again it was America’s leadership and the President of the United States insisting, oftentimes almost having to embarrass Europe to stand up and take economic hits to impose cost,” the vice president said.
So, apparently, there was quite a bit of discord in the Western 'unity' camp over the actions against Russia. Which makes you wonder: was that resistance based solely on the European countries concern for the economic impact of sanctions on their own economies, or was it a function of their scepticism over the actual events in Ukraine (the nature of the latest Ukrainian 'revolution'? the role of the Western powers in stirring the conflict? the role of Russian in the conflict? etc)? Or may be all of the above?..
One way or the other, the US is driving a dangerous game. It is pursuing extremely aggressive course of actions against Russia with no concrete road map for de-escalation, no specific targets for policy and no back up strategy for addressing the adverse effects of isolating Russia in other geopolitical issues, such as ISIS, Middle East, Iran, North Korea and so on.