New Sanctions Bill Leaves Trump with Fewer Options on Russia

The new sanctions bill against Russia passed overwhelmingly by the US Senate last week by a vote of 98-2 could dramatically change the sanctions issue both in the United States and in the Trans-Atlantic alliance. It is not clear as yet how the final legislation will look as the House of Representatives has raised a procedural constitutional issue that could make final agreement between the two chambers of the US Congress complicated. But there are several important factors with the proposed new Congressional sanctions that would strike a major blow at an already tempestuous and conflict-ridden US-Russia relationship.

The first new factor is that this legislation would codify existing sanctions as well as new sanctions thus removing from executive authority the ability to lift any or all sanctions without approval of the Congress. As we know from the case of the Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974 against the Soviet Union that was only lifted nearly 40 years later and long after the reasons for which the amendment was legislated in the first place no longer existed, Congressional codification of sanctions can endure for a long time.

The vote was also a powerful expression of distrust of President Trump to handle the Russian sanctions issue appropriately. Interestingly, just yesterday the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against 38 Russian individuals involved in Crimea and the Donbas. Whether the timing of this announcement was designed to alleviate Congressional angst is unclear at this time.

Those who viewed codification of Ukraine-related sanctions as not such a big problem because of the expectation they would be removed if the Minsk II or another agreement about Ukraine's sovereign future was implemented, now face another major complication. The justification for these new Congressional sanctions goes beyond the Ukraine conflict to include Russian support for the Assad regime in Syria and, more significantly, Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

The hacking issue is especially explosive as it is likely that additional evidence will come out in the ongoing investigation to provide greater credence to the extent of the Kremlin's efforts, and it is impossible to imagine that Mr. Putin will ever admit Kremlin-directed Russian interference. The news last week that the Russian-led hacking efforts into local and state electoral systems were far more extensive than previously known publicly provoked enormous outrage in the Congress and likely explains the near unanimous vote in the Senate.

The final new factor is that this legislation or something like it that emerges from the House and Senate deliberations in the coming days would likely break the Trans-Atlantic unity on sanctions that the Obama Administration worked so hard to maintain.

European companies involved, for example, in the construction of the Nord Stream II pipeline who have important economic relations with US companies may find themselves facing difficult commercial decisions. The situation is akin to the major dispute between the Reagan Administration and our European allies over the building of the Siberian gas pipeline in the early 1980s. Already Angela Merkel and other European leaders have expressed sharp criticism of the potential new sanctions.

While it remains unclear how the current sanctions issue will play out, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Russian hacking campaign has completely backfired. While Donald Trump was elected President (it is impossible to quantify how much the revealed emails contributed to that outcome), the uproar in US politics has deeply strengthened the bi-partisan consensus in the US Congress against Russia, and the broader Russia investigation has, at least for now, left the Trump administration with virtually no degrees of freedom in Russia policy. In addition, European concerns about their own vulnerabilities to Russian interference undoubtedly contributed to the landslide victory of Emanuel Macron in France and increased the likelihood that Putin's most consistent European nemesis, Angela Merkel, will be re-elected in Germany in September.

Andrew C. Kuchins is Senior Fellow and Research Professor at Georgetown University.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.