TYING TRUMP'S HANDS

The sanctions bill is proof that Republicans are deeply worried about Trump’s Russia ties

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"America First"
Obsession
"America First"

Republican lawmakers have mostly kept quiet as stories trickle out about meetings last year between well-connected Russians and members of US president Donald Trump’s inner circle. But that doesn’t mean they trust him.

With Trump seemingly fixated more on charming Russian president Vladimir Putin than on punishing Moscow for its alleged interference in the US election, the House on July 25 overwhelmingly passed a sanctions bill that would tie his hands in any negotiation with the Kremlin. If all goes as expected, it will fly through the Senate and could be on the president’s desk for signing before the August recess.

“This reflects Congress running out of patience with the Trump administration,” says Jon Lieber, US practice head for Eurasia Group and a former advisor to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who introduced the bill. “The Republicans said, ‘We’ll give you a chance, time to fix [the Russian threat].’ Now it’s four or five months later, they haven’t fixed it, and it seems like they might be backsliding. There are serious concerns on Capitol Hill about the administration’s ability to deal with Russia.”

What does the sanctions bill do?

The bill (which also includes measures on North Korea and Iran) does a few key things on Russia, according to a June article by Edward Fishman, a sanctions expert at the Atlantic Council. First, it converts the existing Obama-era sanctions on Russia from executive orders into law. Crucially, it does so without giving the White House an option to waive them unless Congress approves.

That’s never been forced on a president before, says John Hughes, who used to head the Iran sanctions team at the State Department. “I don’t know of any precedent of mandatory sanctions that don’t have some sort of waiver authority for the executive branch,” says Hughes, now vice president at Albright Stonebridge, a consulting and strategy firm.

Secondly, it gives more heft to sanctions on Russian energy companies and allows the US to punish investments in Russian export pipelines. This part of the bill angered the Europeans (paywall) by threatening to kill the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will bring gas from Russia to Europe. But the House has now toned down (pdf) the language so that the US will enforce pipeline sanctions only if it agrees them with its allies.

Finally, the bill carries the threat of sanctions for anyone that trades with Russia’s defense or intelligence sectors.

How much would this damage Russia?

Russia is currently staggering out of a lengthy recession, caused mainly by the drop in oil prices and not helped by the existing sanctions over its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. “Domestically, they have stabilized from the strong economic drop two and a half years ago but, again, this is not a great trajectory—there are really great strains in rural areas,” says Heather Conley at think tank CSIS. “They do in fact want sanctions released and financial markets much more open.”

Given Trump’s constant toying with the idea of lifting sanctions, any bill that stops him doing that isn’t going to be welcome to Russia. What’s more, Conley says, the existing sanctions’ effects on energy companies are already painful, and this bill may threaten oil exploration projects that need help from European or US companies. “That would hurt,” says Stefan Meister at the German Council of Foreign Relations. “These projects are really important to the [Putin] regime,” he said.

The extent of the damage, however, will depend on how the Trump administration decides to enforce the bill. (Most analysts expect the White House to be lax.) It could ignore the energy part, which does let the White House apply waivers, but not the sections on defense and intelligence, Fishman wrote in June. If applied fully, this section could mean sanctioning any person or entity that buys a lot of weapons from Moscow. Given that Russia makes around 23% of the world’s sales of major weapons (i.e., things that are not small arms), that “packs a major economic punch,” as Fishman puts it.

How would Russia respond?

With great displeasure. The bill would “kill” Trump’s hopes of improving relations with the Kremlin, says Russian foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov. “Moscow would react very negatively and would look for asymmetrical responses which are hard to pinpoint at this moment,” he wrote in an email last week.

Russian officials have already come out firing (paywall). The US is “undermining its position, undermining its authority, creating deep mistrust, forming the impression of itself as an undesirable and even dangerous partner,” Russian deputy foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told one state news agency (link in Russian). “The possibilities for normalizing relations are closing for the foreseeable future,” he told another outlet (Russian).

Frolov says there would still be some room to work together on issues like Syria, where Trump has slightly more leverage and isn’t restricted by sanctions, but it would signal the end of the Kremlin’s openness to more wide-ranging deals. “After these kinds of moves it’s not possible to talk about any kind of respect or being prepared to partner with the authors of initiatives like this,” Ryabkov said.

And without the potential carrot of sanctions relief, it would also be a lot harder for the US to extract useful concessions from Russia, says Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Russia program. “You don’t have any leverage with Russia if you have the blunt instrument of sanctions and the president doesn’t have the right to issue waivers,” she says.

Putting that into law as a way to rein in Trump is short-sighted, Stent argues, pointing at the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment as evidence that these kinds of laws stay in force much longer than planned. The law aimed to force the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate—and was seen as very successful. However, it then proved near impossible to repeal, becoming an impediment to normalizing trade with post-Soviet Russia, and it was scrapped only in 2012 (paywall).

Congress, however, is unfussed by the idea of damaging relations with Russia for the medium-to-long term, says Lieber. “That would probably be considered a feature not a bug. Most members on the Hill see Russia as a geopolitical foe,” he said. “As long as Putin remains in power, they want this to be an impediment to improving relations.” The explanation chimes with what members of Congress have said. As House speaker Paul Ryan bluntly put it: “I’m a Russia hawk. I believe in strong, bold Russian sanctions. We want to move this Russia sanctions bill.”

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