The Cable

Democrats Suspect Trump Influence in Stalled Russia Sanctions

A key Republican and Trump ally denies any connection.

RALEIGH, NC - JULY 5:  Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump stands next to Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) during a campaign event at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts  on July 5, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Earlier in the day Hillary Clinton campaigned in Charlotte, North Carolina with President Barack Obama. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - JULY 5: Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump stands next to Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) during a campaign event at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts on July 5, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Earlier in the day Hillary Clinton campaigned in Charlotte, North Carolina with President Barack Obama. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

A key Republican says the Senate has run out of time this year to lock in tough U.S. sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea in 2014 — opening attacks from Democrats who for years have been accused of being too soft on Moscow.

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker told Foreign Policy there simply isn’t enough time to move on a House bill to keep U.S. sanctions in place for an additional five years. Corker said senators are more focused on a host of other issues, which include funding the government, medical research, and authorizing defense priorities for 2017.

The current sanctions were imposed by President Barack Obama in an executive order, but could be scrapped by President-elect Donald Trump, who has pledged warming relations with Russia in his incoming administration. The House bill would ensure they remain in place for five years.

Senate Democrats say the reason Republicans aren’t moving the sanctions is for fear of falling out of step with Trump, who has long televised his goal of getting “along with Russia.”

“It is unnerving that some of my Republican colleagues would consider walking away from longstanding, responsible policies to counter Russian aggression at the behest of an ill-informed Donald Trump seeking rapprochement with dictator Vladimir Putin,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told FP.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) a member of the Senate National Security Working Group, said the sanctions in question “don’t even account for the war crimes in Syria that the Russian Federation is complicit in.”

“It’s far past time for Senate Republicans to send a message to the world that the U.S. will stand up to Putin’s aggression and defend our allies,” he told FP.

The remarks demonstrate how quickly the political issue of U.S.-Russia relations have changed. For nearly eight years, the Obama administration fended off Republicans criticism for engaging with Moscow on a range of geopolitical issues, a process that began with the White House’s “reset” with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The Stability and Democracy for Ukraine Act, passed unanimously in the House in September, would lock in place the Crimea-related sanctions against Moscow unless Ukraine’s sovereignty over the peninsula is restored. It was originally sponsored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) who is urging Republican senators to take up the bill.

It’s up to Corker to advance the bill in the Senate. The chairman met this week with Trump in New York, and is currently being considered to be the next secretary of state. But he denied the job in Foggy Bottom influenced the delay of the House legislation.

“No, no, no, no, no,” he told FP on Thursday. “I can assure you no conversations of any type have occurred on anything like that.”

“We’ve got three or four things that will happen next week and I think that’s going to be it,” he added. “I don’t think there’s an avenue for that to occur but we’re certainly not in any way holding it up.”

GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham both said they were hoping to pass the bill before the end of the year but said it was unclear if they would succeed.

The legislation, which is being pushed by the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, isn’t the only issue Democrats are using to test the Republican Party’s historic hawkish line toward Russia.

A number of Democrats are also supporting House-approved legislation targeting providers of financial, material, or technological support to the Syrian government — which would include Russia. The bill is currently stalled in Corker’s committee, as is a resolution to approve the accession of Montenegro into NATO — a move Moscow strongly opposes.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump maintained improved relations with Moscow is in America’s best interest, and could be crucial for cooperation against terrorists such as the Islamic State in Syria.

But longtime foreign policy hands said the latest congressional spats demonstrate how difficult it will be to change Washington’s default position of antagonism with Russia.

“Many senior U.S. officials and experts are critical of Russia; top soldiers and civilians have said Russia is America’s biggest security threat,” said Cameron Munter, a former U.S. ambassador who is now head of the EastWest Institute, which focuses on conflict resolution. “If Trump seeks improved relations with Russia, he will likely need to win over this powerful lobby.”

Chief national security correspondent Dan De Luce contributed to this report. 

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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