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New US Russia sanctions bill risks EU anger

July 28, 2017

The US Senate has passed a bill to slap new sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea. In addition to straining ties between the US and Russia, it could also raise tensions with the EU.

Deutschland Trump trifft Putin
Image: picture alliance/dpa/AP/E. Vucci

US Senate passes sanctions against Russia

The US Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly endorsed a bill that places restrictions on President Donald Trump from loosening sanctions on Russia, a measure that could tie his hands if he seeks a reset in relations with Moscow.

Senators voted 98-2 to pass the legislation, which also imposes a new round of sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea. Two days earlier, the House passed the bill 419-3.

The legislation now goes to the president's desk for signature.

'Boorish' behavior

Speaking from Finland ahead of the Senate vote, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that sanctions against his country were "illegal." He added that the probe into the alleged 2016 hacking was indicative of a "rise in anti-Russian hysteria."

"It is very regrettable that Russian-American ties are being sacrificed to issues of American internal policy," he said on Thursday.

Answering a question on the eventual Russian response to the proposed sanctions, Putin told reporters that the Kremlin has yet to see what the measures would entail in practice.

"We see that there are constant attempts to provoke us at this time," Putin said. "As you know, we are being quite reserved, patient, but at some moment there should be a response. Such boorish behavior towards our country cannot be tolerated indefinitely."

Congressional unease over Trump

The bill is a rare case of the Republican controlled Congress allying with Democrats against their own president, whose administration has been plagued by investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

A key feature of the bill is a requirement for the president to seek permission from Congress before removing sanctions on Russia - an attempt to block any unilateral move by Trump to lift sanctions.

The Trump administration has sent mixed messages about bill, arguing it interferes with executive authority and ties the president's hands in conducting foreign policy. At the same time the White House has said it supports tough sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea.

It is not clear whether Trump will veto the bill, but given the vote tallies, Congress has far more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

Raising tensions with Russia

The sanctions package punishes Russia for alleged meddling in the US presidential election and military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. 

Republican Sentator John McCain said Thursday that punishing Russia for election interference was long overdue.

"Over the last eight months what price has Russia paid for attacking our elections?" McCain asked. "Very little."

The sanctions target among other things Russia's energy sector by limiting or prohibiting US firms from financing and working on some Russian energy projects.

Russia has warned against the new sanctions and their impact on relations with the United States.

Any sanctions package is likely to severely restrict Trump's efforts to establish a working relationship with Russia as the two sides seek to pave over differences. 

"The compromise bill is likely to add considerably to tensions between Moscow and Washington at a time when Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are still reaching for low-hanging fruit … to set the US-Russia relationship on a conciliatory track," the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor wrote in an analysis earlier this week.

It noted that Russia could retaliate against the United States by escalating or playing a spoiler role in any number of areas, ranging from Ukraine and Syria to Afghanistan and North Korea.

EU ready to react

The Russian bill has also raised concern with the European Union because it could result in fines and other measures against companies involved in the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project or other joint energy projects. It would also limit the access of European energy firms to US banks.

The sanctions have particularly unnerved Germany and Austria, home of large energy companies that could be negatively impacted by the new bill.

On Wednesday, German Foreign Ministry warned that Berlin "could not accept" the US using sanctions against Russia as a tool of industrial policy. Germany is willing to coordinate with the US on sanctions against Russia and North Korea, a spokesman said.

If the US were to sanction European firms, it would further tensions across the Atlantic and could trigger retaliatory actions from the EU, which opposed unilateral action from Washington that upsets what has been a coordinated sanctions regimeagainst Russia over Ukraine.

Commenting on the issue on Wednesday, EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned of far-reaching consequences for transatlantic ties.

"If our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days," he said in a statement. "The US bill could have unintended unilateral effects that impact the EU's energy security interests. America first cannot mean that Europe's interests come last."

Juncker added that the EU was "raising its concerns via all diplomatic channels with the US and its counterparts."

A number of European officials have suggested the United States is targeting Russian energy in part to promote its own liquefied national gas exports to Europe. 

Iran and North Korea

The Iran sanctions target the country's ballistic missile program, "destabilizing" activities in the Middle East and human rights abuses. Iran argues the sanctions violate both the letter and spirit of the international nuclear agreement.

Under the deal, Tehran agreed to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions being dropped. Both the US State Department and International Atomic Energy Agency have confirmed Iran has abided by the agreement and dismantled its nuclear weapons program.

However, the Trump administration is reviewing the nuclear accord and has upped hostile rhetoric against Iran, suggesting the US could exit the deal as it reverts to an open policy of regime change in Tehran. 

The North Korea section of the sanctions further punishes Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs. 

cw/bk (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)