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Russia sanctions could hold, but strain transatlantic ties

Michael Knigge
July 25, 2017

A new round of US sanctions on Russia hammered out by Congress includes language that would make it harder for President Trump to lift them. But the bill also contains a passage that could increase tensions with Europe.

The G20 meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
Trump and Putin: A sanction-proof friendship?Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Vucci

The sanctions bill would target the energy sector and other key segments of the Russian economy, but it would also limit President Donald Trump's ability to lift or change the sanctions regime unilaterally. 

In an unusual feat, the proposed sanctions were agreed by congressional negotiators in a bipartisan manner late last week. The measure is scheduled for a vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday after the Senate cleared it several weeks ago.           

A key passage of the bill would require President Trump, who is under continued pressure over his campaign's alleged contacts with Russia, to seek congressional approval before undoing or altering the existing US sanctions against Moscow.

Extraordinary development

The White House, which initially opposed the measure, has now signaled tentative approval. President Trump could theoretically veto the bill, but due to its the bipartisan nature, he could face an override of his veto by Congress.  

The measure would mandate the White House to write a report to Congress detailing the reasons for changing the sanctions regime. US lawmakers would then have 30 days to decide whether to agree to President Trump's request or not.    

"In respect to domestic politics and for governmental relations in the US, this is a pretty extraordinary development”, said Jeffrey Anderson, director of the Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University.

That a Republican-controlled Congress, specifically the House of Representatives where Trump has many supporters, would agree to tie the president's hand on a key foreign policy issue would have been hard to believe just a few months back.  

"It's a sign of just how hemmed in he is by this whole Russia issue”, said Anderson.

Still, the deal is not done. Late Monday, Senator Bob Corker told reporters: "We still have a little work to do." He declined to give a timeframe for a potential adoption of the legislation and underlined that announcing a deal ahead of the vote "seemed somewhat premature."

Yet the willingness of so many Republicans to constrain Trump's political wiggle room on Russia also highlights the biggest division between the party and its president.

"Red line” matter

"On this issue, as opposed to other areas in which he has differed with long-standing conservative policies, such as immigration and free trade, the Republican voting base is not on his side” said Marc Lendler, a professor of government at Smith College.

"So Republicans in Congress are freer to part with him on Russia, and more likely to see doing so as a 'red line' matter”, he said.

Unlike the previous three rounds of Russia sanctions, which were put in place as responses to Moscow's annexation of the Crimea and interference in Ukraine, the new set of punitive measures are viewed also as a result of congressional unease with President Trump's perceived lax attitude towards Russia and his alleged fondness for President Vladimir Putin.

In fact, the original congressional sanctions bill was aimed at Iran. Punitive measures against Moscow were added to the measure only later as the bill evolved as constant new revelations about possible connections between Trump associates and Russia arose.    

That's why the bill could also be perceived as a message by Republican lawmakers to Trump that he should not count on their cooperation on other issues related to Russia either, said Lendler. 

Moscow meeting of Rex Tillerson and Sergei Lavrov
The US and Russian top diplomats' meetings have been cordial to a faultImage: picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/S. Krasilnikov

Transatlantic consequences

What has been largely neglected, however, in the domestic discussion with its focus on constraining Trump's handling of Russia is the fact that the new bill could further strain what is an already tense transatlantic relationship, because the bill includes a passage that allows fines for businesses helping Moscow to build energy export pipelines.

Since European companies are much more exposed to energy projects involving Russia than their US counterparts, they would be disproportionately affected by potential penalties for doing business with Russian firms. Of particular concern for Europe in this regard is Nord Stream 2, a controversial pipeline slated to deliver Russian natural gas across the Baltic.

Germany and Austria, home of large energy companies that could be negatively impacted by the new bill, have voiced strong opposition against the measure from the get-go. And the EU has now also threatened retaliatory steps should the new law lead to fines against European companies.

"They have come up with a sanctions package that potentially externalizes a lot of the sacrifice onto Europe and European companies”, said Anderson. "And this is going to be a problem.”

Lack of consultation

The current state of affairs now further alienates the US and Europe, and that is counterproductive and unnecessary, said F. Stephen Larrabee, a European security expert at the Rand Corporation, who faults the Trump administration for not doing its homework on the issue.

"Of course, they should have consulted with the Europeans on this”, he said. "But this would require close cooperation between the White House, the State Department and the Treasury which doesn't exist."

Georgetown University's Anderson added that it is standard practice for the executive to step in and make sure America's allies are consulted by new legislation proposed by Congress and to intervene if necessary to make sure partners are not harmed unintentionally by new laws.     

On previous rounds of Russian sanctions, said Anderson, Washington closely cooperated with its European partners, particularly Germany, to get agreement on the measure.

"The Obama-Merkel partnership was absolutely central here with Merkel and Germany then playing a kind of leadership role in Europe to bring along either hesitant or recalcitrant partners within the EU”, he noted.

'America First'

This is not happening now, the Georgetown scholar noted, since the Trump administration has no interest in the new Russia sanctions bill in the first place.     

"Ironically this is a kind of ‘America First' policy, but with a very different interpretation, being pushed by members of Congress who see themselves as stepping in and protecting American democracy from Russian meddling”, said Anderson.

While both experts expressed their hope that the bill could be implemented in a way that would not unduly penalize European companies and hurt transatlantic ties, Anderson remained cautious.     

"There is no guarantee that that will happen given the fact that we haven't seen too much in the way of great coordination from the US government on European issues since January.”

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