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The Uncertain Future of America’s Sanctions on Russia

Tags: Trump , Russia , United States , Politics , Congress

Saunders, Paul J.

June 26, 2017

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President Trump at a June 21 “Make America Great Again” rally in Iowa following the imposition of fresh sanctions on Russian companies and individuals over the conflict in Ukraine. © Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Trump at a June 21 “Make America Great Again” rally in Iowa following the imposition of fresh sanctions on Russian companies and individuals over the conflict in Ukraine. © Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

US sanctions against Russia have become a prominent symbol of the Trump administration’s ties with the Kremlin and have made many allies—both those favoring and opposing closer bilateral ties—nervous. The lopsided, mid-June Senate vote to impose new sanctions was a political act rather than a policy statement, says Paul Saunders, and the outlook remains uncertain.

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Questions about America’s relationship with Russia have become increasingly important for many US allies. Some, who perceive direct threats from Russia to their own interests, are nervous that an improvement in US-Russia ties could endanger their security or their regional interests. Others, who do not see such threats, worry that ongoing tension between Washington and Moscow could compromise economic or other goals. For all, US sanctions have become—rightly or wrongly—perhaps the most significant indicator of American intent.

That sanctions should take on such symbolic power is hardly surprising; they have become one of Washington’s principal weapons in pressuring other governments to comply with US preferences and/or Western interpretations of international rules and norms. This is in part because powerful economic sanctions can impose high costs, particularly when imposed universally or at least quite broadly, and in part because US policymakers and politicians view applying sanctions as less dangerous, less expensive, and less controversial politically than using military force.

Of course, sanctions against Russia have become most prominent as a symbol within the United States itself due to concerns that President Donald Trump might reverse some or all of the Obama administration’s sanctions. This is wholly within Mr. Trump’s power, as his predecessor imposed the sanctions by executive order.

The concern stems from July 2016 off-the-cuff comments by candidate Trump suggesting that if elected, his administration would “be looking at” lifting the sanctions [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/07/27/donald-trumps-falsehood-laden-press-conference-annotated/?utm_term=.d70365d9025a], leaked reports about a monitored December 2016 conversation between Mr. Trump’s National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn regarding the sanctions [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/09/us/flynn-is-said-to-have-talked-to-russians-about-sanctions-before-trump-took-office.html], and a January 2017 Twitter message and related statements from then President-elect Trump appearing to link the sanctions to Russian concessions on arms control [http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-russia-arms-deal-idUSKBN14Z0YE]. While media accounts appear to have over-dramatized these events, the result has been extreme political sensitivity to the prospect that the new administration could loosen or lift sanctions—even though Trump administration officials have indicated no such intent.

The Meaning of a New Sanctions Bill

This sensitivity has similarly taken hold in some parts of Europe, especially central and eastern Europe, where Mr. Trump’s complaints about many NATO members’ failure to meet agreed defense spending targets has compounded fears that the United States may limit its commitment to US allies while simultaneously pursuing warmer relations with Russia. Some other governments, particularly along NATO’s southern tier, would themselves prefer greater dialogue and cooperation with Moscow and seem much less troubled by this. On a global basis, the further one moves from Ukraine, the more likely that governments see US and European sanctions on Russia as an obstacle to pursuing their national interests rather than a necessity in doing so.

In spring 2017, Washington’s political establishment slowly calmed its sanctions-related anxieties as US-Russia ties deteriorated, mostly over Syria, and the Trump administration did not pursue an early meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin or other meaningful efforts at rapprochement. Congressional Republican leaders were prepared to wait and see and, accordingly, did not pursue efforts to enact sanctions into law—a step that those most troubled by the prospect of a better US-Russia relationship had energetically advocated.

This appeared to change, at least to an extent, in mid-June, when the Senate voted 98-2 to approve a wide range of additional sanctions and other measures targeting Russia, including new programs to counter Russia’s influence [http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-sanctions-idUSKBN1962AU]. Yet there is likely also more to this vote than is immediately visible.

Most important, the final bill was in fact a measure to impose new sanctions on Iran. Republicans had proposed the bill but Democrats refused to pass it without including sanctions on Russia—a political move presumably calculated to force Senate Republicans to choose between appearing to rebuke a Republican president by passing the bill or, alternatively, appearing blind to and unconcerned by allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials. Senate Republican leaders agreed to Russia sanctions, amended the Iran bill with what looked like almost every item of pending legislation related to Russia, and held a vote on the consolidated bill within 72 hours.

Doomed to Legislative Death?

The Senate’s speed dramatized the degree to which the sanctions vote was a political act rather than a policy statement. Given that senators had given little scrutiny to the pre-existing Russia sanctions bills and that they did not have the time to closely examine or usefully debate the combined document before voting, the 98-2 vote reflects a bipartisan consensus to avoid criticism over Russia policy, as well as broadly-based resentment of Moscow’s interference in the election, rather than any well-considered position on US policy. Moreover, Senate Republican leaders could afford to allow this because they well knew that their control of the House of Representatives would permit more careful management of the proposal once it left the upper house.

And, indeed, Senate Republicans seem to have been correct in this judgment. Thus, while Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has publicly expressed support for rapid consideration of the bill, he has been vague about whether that means an expedited process or simply a quick beginning for standard procedures for review, debate, and amendment—which could take months, according to some reports [https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-sanctions-idUSKBN19D22H]. It is even possible that in practice, such an approach could ultimately doom the legislation to a legislative death by a thousand cuts. House Republicans already seem likely to force a second vote in the Senate before starting to consider the sanctions bill due to what Democrats see as a politically-motivated maneuver to raise constitutional questions about some of its language [http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/senate/339007-senate-expected-to-pass-russia-sanctions-bill-for-a-second-time].

Sources on Capitol Hill also suggest that House Republicans may seek to dramatically strengthen Iran sanctions in the bill to try to split Democrats, some of whom worry that tough new sanctions on Tehran could undercut the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA). Finally, as House members look at details of the bill, they may have questions about some of its provisions. For example, a measure to impose sanctions on third-country firms that provide goods, services, technology, or other assistance to Russia in constructing energy pipelines appears likely to provoke resistance from some US allies. Similarly, legislative rather than executive sanctions may trouble US allies who worry that the sanctions could become a near-permanent feature of US policy. All of this suggests that notwithstanding the dramatic and lopsided Senate vote, the future of America’s sanctions on Russia remains uncertain.

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