On June 12, the US Senate reached a bipartisan agreement on a new round of sanctions against Russia. The package is response to a trio of Russian actions, including the alleged «interference» in the 2016 election, engagement in Syria and what they call «invasion» of Crimea. The additional sanctions on Russia would prohibit the president from being able to lift them without Congressional approval.
The measure is to codify existing sanctions and place new economic restrictions to harm Russia's economy and specific individuals – those who «violate human rights», supply weapons to Syria or are involved in the Russian defense and intelligence industry. Besides, the provision is setting up a process for the Congress to review changes in sanctions, the measure that would put into law sanctions previously established via presidential executive order.
The bill allows new sanctions on Russian mining, metals, shipping and railways. The measure also authorizes assistance for European countries concerned about Russian «aggression». Signing the bill into law would be an unprecedented development in the Russia-US relationship to damage it for many years to come. It would not benefit the United States in any way. The move has nothing to do with the «America First» concept.
Not all Republicans rushed to support the measure. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, was skeptical of the idea to push through additional anti-Russian sanctions. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, wanted the Senate to give the president «more time» to define his stance. But Democratic leaders said that they would support Iranian sanctions only if tough sanctions against Russia were also included.
Now, the bill is to be approved by the House before it reaches Donald Trump’s desk. The president does not support the measure. He can veto the bill or refuse to sign it, but a veto can be overridden and a refusal to sign will not prevent it from becoming a law. The batch of sanctions would be added to a bill imposing penalties on Iran, which the president has supported. This bill is on the Senate floor at present. It has gone through procedural vote, so its approval will not take long.
Why the rush? Evidently, the lawmakers go to any length to have the president’s hands tied before he meets Russian President Putin at the G20 summit on July7-8, 2017.
Sanctions, especially unilateral sanctions, have long been a tool of the US foreign policy. They have had limited or no impact, as history shows. The «tool» has not changed the policies of Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria or Cuba. Cuba has resisted punitive measures for more than half a century and Communists are still in power there. For decades, countries like Great Britain, Japan, and Spain have conducted business with Cuba, taking a lot of the bite out of the longstanding US embargo. The US sanctions against Iran have pushed it closer to China. US sanctions in Somalia have produced devastating consequences. The list can go on.
The sanctions have proved pathetically ineffectual in the case of Russia. The US approach to Russia is predicated on the supposition that continued pressure on the country will cause President Vladimir Putin to make concessions or even resign. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The punitive measures made Russia step on the path of greater self-reliance with its domestic manufacturing and service industries beginning to grow even bigger. This year, the economy is on the mend. Russia is heading toward a moderate growth rate over the 2017-to-2019 period, says a World Bank report. Under the sanctions, the Russia’s military potential has grown exponentially. Syria is a good example. The sanctions have increased the popular support for President Putin’s policies.
The United States has to make exclusions from the rule. For instance, the Russian RD-180, RD-181 rocket engines exported to the US are crucial for America’s space research programs and are exported to the United States despite the sanctions. According to Senator McCain, «This is the height of hypocrisy! How can our government tell European countries and governments that they need to hold the line on maintaining sanctions on Russia, which is far harder for them to do, when we are gutting our own policy in this way?» Hypocrisy or not, the fact is the US cannot do without high-tech cooperation with Russia. As one can see, the sanctions regime is not such a hard and fast rule when it comes to practice.
The legislation will greatly deteriorate the bilateral relationship and put into question the prospects for accords to be reached in the field of arms control and non-proliferation. Coordination of efforts in the Middle East is of prime importance. There is a host of burning issues the US and Russia need to address urgently but any attempts to strike a deal will be negatively affected for years to come if the bill becomes a law.
On many issues, Russia could be a valuable partner in securing American interests. Russia and the United States significantly agree on how to deal with the problems of international terrorism, among many other issues. The measure will greatly reduce the possibility of partnership on them.
Time will pass and the world will change. Russia and the US will have to tackle a lot of issues of mutual interest but the legislation will remain to be an obstacle on the way. As practice shows, it is easy to vote for a bill but it is a tall order to get rid of it even if it has lost relevance. Suffice it to remember the Jackson–Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, which was repealed only when the 2012 Magnitsky Act was signed into law. It had lost any touch with reality long ago, the Soviet Union had disappeared but the Act had remained in force.
There is still time for the House of Representatives to play a positive role and prevent it. The legislation is an outright encroachment on the president’s foreign policy powers to deprive the administration of flexibility and freedom of action. The US will hardly gain anything by making it a law, but the damage it will inevitably incur will be almost irreparable.