The Cable

Senate Overwhelmingly Approves Fresh Russia Sanctions

Lawmakers want to codify Obama-era sanctions before the White House can lift them.

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The U.S. Senate voted 97-2 on Wednesday to turn existing sanctions on Russia into law. If passed by the House and not vetoed by the White House, the move would serve as a check against President Donald Trump lifting those that are already in place.

The Russian sanctions language was an amendment attached to a bill sanctioning Iran over its ballistic missile program and terrorism sponsorship — meaning Trump would have to veto a more aggressive posture toward Iran if he were to veto the new Russia sanctions.

Administration officials, led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, sought to convince lawmakers not to codify the Russia sanctions, since that could remove some of the administration’s diplomatic maneuvering room. The overall legislation could pass the Senate as early as Thursday. It’s unclear when it would become law, though — it must still clear the House.

The threat of a White House veto won’t scare the Senate, since there’s clearly a veto-proof majority, but could force the House to try to soften some of the provisions in its companion bill.

Several elements of the amendment passed today are noteworthy. First, it turns five executive orders issued by President Barack Obama into law, meaning they can’t be undone with the stroke of a president’s pen. Those include sanctions on Russia for attacking Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and interfering in the U.S. election.

Second, it expands the scope of existing sanctions on Russia to include additional sectors, such as railways and mining, in the hopes of ramping up economic pressure on Moscow. It also toughens the language on energy-sector sanctions for just the kinds of projects Russia needs to develop in the years to come, such as Arctic and offshore oil drilling.

Third, it broadens the potential scope of U.S. sanctions to include any energy project that Russia is involved in — and could lead to the sanctioning of any firm that is involved in such a project. That could be bad news for Russia’s plans to build — alongside five Western European firms — a new natural gas pipeline to bypass Ukraine and feed Europe with energy supplies directly. Previously, U.S. and European officials had said that the Nord Stream 2 project was bad for Europe, but had no real arrows in the quiver to go after it. Now, if he chooses to, Trump could check Russia’s plans to deepen its energy dominance.

“This bipartisan amendment is the sanctions regime that the Kremlin deserves for its actions,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

“It is time to respond to Russia’s attack on American Democracy with strength, with resolve, with common purpose and with action,” proclaimed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“This bipartisan agreement sends an important message to the Russian government and to anyone else who attempts to interfere in our elections: their destabilizing actions will not go unpunished. It also sends a message to the Trump administration: Russia is not our friend and the Senate is prepared to defend our democracy against a hostile foreign power when President Trump fails to act,” cheered Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)

Not all American authorities agreed, however. In a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday morning, Tillerson expressed concern about the Russia sanctions bill, saying the administration needed flexibility to maintain “constructive dialogue” with Moscow.

“The relationship between the United States and Russia is at an all-time low and it’s getting worse,” Tillerson said. “The two greatest nuclear powers on the planet cannot have this kind of relationship. We have to move it to a different place.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said a day before the vote that Russia was following the matter closely and had a “negative” view of the it. Of the possibility of fresh sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “Why should I respond to every sneeze? I am not a medical expert.”  

FP’s Robbie Gramer contributed to this post.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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