The Cable

With Probable White House Support, Congress Prepares to Vote on Russia Sanctions Bill

Some see the president as having little choice but to sign the legislation.

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Congress on Tuesday is expected to begin considering a new bill that would level fresh sanctions against Russia, measures that now appear to have White House support.

House and Senate negotiators announced Saturday they’d reached a deal on the legislation, which would make it more difficult for Trump to lift sanctions leveled against Russia and could penalize firms, including those in Europe, that contribute to Russian energy development.  Sanctions against Iran and North Korea are also included in the bill.

The next day, the newly minted White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, said U.S. President Donald Trump would make a decision soon as to whether he would support the new bill, contradicting press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said the White House was on board with the sanctions.

However, Scaramucci noted he was still new to the job and deferred to Sanders.

“The administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place,” Sanders said. She added that the White House felt the original legislation was poorly composed, but that it supported the current legislation.

“Frankly, not much in terms of what the administration can and cannot do changed in negotiations so her reasoning is not necessarily on solid ground,” a Senate Democratic staffer said, in response to Sanders’ comment. “But we’re glad to see they’re supporting the bill and hope the president signs it as soon as it reaches his desk.”

Support from European allies is also critical to the new sanctions. They have criticized the legislation, both because it makes sanctions more difficult to lift even if circumstances changed, and also because of potential “unintended consequences” on energy.

Companies working on the development of Nord Stream II, which runs from Russia to Germany, could well see the United States imposing punitive measures on those involved in the pipeline project. That would likely undermine the unified US-EU stance on Russia THAT the sanctions were meant to support.

“For US-Europe relations, Nord Stream has all the elements of being a really difficult problem to solve,” Columbia University political science professor Timothy Frye told Foreign Policy.

Congress needs to craft legislation such that allies feel heard, but also to ensure the United States doesn’t soften its posture toward Russia, according to Frye. “I think this is a very tricky problem in part because Europe is divided on Nord Stream II,” he said, with Germans and Austrians supporting it and Poles, who do not want to increase Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, decidedly opposed.

Even if European allies are on board, it’s unclear if the measures will actually serve to check Russian aggression in Ukraine, which is arguably their primary purpose. “My concern is whether the U.S. side will preserve the ability to credibly offer sanctions relief as leverage for Russian implementation of its Minsk commitments,” Matthew Rojansky, of the Kennan Institute, told FP.

Trump would not have been the first president to oppose Congress using sanctions to shape the White House’s foreign policy, but other administrations have not faced an investigation into foreign interference in U.S. elections.

But, then, with both parties overwhelmingly supporting the legislation, Trump “wants to get in front of the parade, I think,” Frye said. “If this is going to happen anyway, there’s no sense in trying to fight it.”

Photo credit: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

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

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