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President Trump could lift Russian sanctions quickly

Many of the sanctions imposed on Russia can be lifted quickly - with a swift brush of Donald Trump’s pen. But he already faces opposition, with Senator John McCain promising to fight the lifting of sanctions on Moscow.

The US has imposed several sanctions against Russia in recent years, all of which are still in force; most recently in response to Russian hack attacks and cyber criminality concerning the US elections.

Sanctions were also imposed by Barack Obama in 2014 in response to the annexation of Crimea and the military engagement of Russia in Ukraine. Many of these sanctions can be lifted quickly - with a swift brush of Donald Trump's pen.

Penalties by decree

The sanctions imposed as a result of the Crimea crisis form the largest part of the penalties. Their legal basis are in the form of executive orders by Obama, which have legal force without approval by the US Congress.

Beginning on 6 March 2014, on the day of the annexation of Crimea, Obama authorized Executive Order 13660, which proclaimed a "national emergency" targeting individuals and institutions. The aim was to freeze the assets of some Russians in the USA and deny them access to the country.

From March until December 19, 2014, Executive Orders 13661, 13662, and 13685 followed. The sanctions were gradually expanded to increase the "diplomatic and financial cost" of "Russia's aggressive acts against Ukraine" as published on the US Department of Foreign Affairs' website.

Ukraine and Russian hacking

The list of affected individuals and companies increased over time and now includes 14 arms companies and individuals directly associated to Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Access to banking services and money sources for the largest Russian banks and energy groups have been made substantially more difficult. US citizens are not allowed to provide Russia with goods and services that the country could use to promote oil and gas in certain regions and investment and trade with Crimea is totally forbidden. Credit financing that facilitates exports to Russia was halted as well as financing for development projects in Russia.

USA Donald Trump unterzeichnet das Mexico City Dekret (Getty Images/R. Sachs)

President Trump has been exercising his right to reverse the executive orders of Barack Obama.

Another Executive Order, No. 13964, was issued by Obama on April 1, 2016 to respond to "malicious cyberactivity" by foreign hackers. He first froze the wealth of certain individuals and institutions in the US and then, on December 29, 2016, extended the punishment to certain Russian individuals. Since then, the sanctions have also been applied to the central body of the Russian military intelligence service GRU, the Russian domestic secret service FSB, the management staff of these institutions and three research institutes.

Because these sanctions were all made by decree, it would be easy for US President Donald Trump to cash them or change them without the Congress' approval. He simply only needs to sign another decree.

"Executive orders can be canceled by subsequent executive orders, by the same or a later president", explains Kirk Junker, professor of US law at the University of Cologne, to DW.

Presidential ping pong

A good example of such back and forth is when President Ronald Reagan banned the use of federal funds for advocating abortion in 1984. "President Bill Clinton reversed it when he took office in 1993. George W Bush reinstated it in 2001 and President Barack Obama cancelled it in 2009. President Trump reinstated the ban again in his first week in the White House," Junker said.

Ronald Reagan 1984 (AP)

Reagan's abortion executive order has been reversed and re-reversed time and time again by subsequent presidents

But some sanctions against individuals or firms cannot simply be reversed by Trump. At the end of 2012, the so-called Magnitzki Act entered into force, as an addition to a law normalizing trade relations with Russia. It prohibits individuals entering the US and the use of the US banking system, whom the US believes colluded in the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitzki. He had uncovered a tax scandal, was subsequently arrested and died in a prison in Moscow in 2009.

The law can be amended only if both the House of Representatives and the Senate agree. The Republican party run both chambers.

The same applies to the "Ukraine Freedom Support Act", which came into effect at the end of 2014. The Act also contains passages that allow sanctions against the state arms exporter Rosoboronexport and the Russian energy sector. However, Obama said at the time: "At this time, the Administration does not intend to impose sanctions under this law, but the Act gives the Administration additional authorities that could be utilized, if circumstances warranted."

McCain promises a fight

Senator John McCain will not let Trump reverse the decree without a fight. The 2008 Republican presidential hopeful said Friday that he hoped the administration would reject its "reckles course".

"If he does not [change his stance], I will work with my colleagues to codify sanctions against Russia into Law," McCain, one of the Republican party's senior foreign policy voices, said in a statement.

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