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Senators Push For Russia Sanctions While White House Conducts ‘Review’

Senators Push For Russia Sanctions While White House Conducts ‘Review’

Momentum is building in Congress to impose tough new sanctions on Russia even as the White House is conducting a review of existing sanctions policy.

The Senate Banking Committee on Thursday announced a bipartisan agreement for legislation that would strengthen and expand punitive sanctions against Moscow over its seizure of Crimea, its support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and its military backing for the Syrian regime.

The bill, which would authorize penalties against Russia’s mining, metals and railway industries, is the latest measure put forward by lawmakers concerned over a resurgent Russia’s military moves in Ukraine and Syria and its cyber interference in the 2016 presidential election. A separate bill proposed earlier this year, backed by 20 Republicans and Democrats, would slap wide-ranging sanctions against Russia’s defense and intelligence agencies.

The Trump administration, however, is assessing whether the sanctions already in place are proving effective.

“We are very carefully reviewing existing sanctions protocols to make sure they do what they are intended to do,” an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.

“Sometimes sanctions have unintended consequences,” including collateral effects on economic markets, said the official, without elaborating.

The policy review could prompt the administration to ease some sanctions or to impose additional sanctions on Russia, the official said.

The White House is examining existing sanctions policies on other countries as well, the official said. “The president has demonstrated a pretty high appetite for using those tools,” the official said, citing new measures imposed in recent weeks against Iran, Venezuela and North Korea.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump said he wanted to find common ground with Russia in Syria and elsewhere. And his aides signaled an interest in possibly easing sanctions on Russia even before the president was inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in a now famous phone call in December. Flynn was later forced to resign, ostensibly for misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about the details of his talks with the Russian ambassador. The Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to blackmail as a result of his communications with the Russians.

The Trump administration’s initial stance toward Russia alarmed diplomats in the State Department and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, prompting senators from both parties to propose legislation that would codify sanctions slapped on Moscow in December over its alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Revelations about Flynn and other Trump aides, meanwhile, have led to two ongoing congressional probes, and a special counsel investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Since Trump entered office, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has rebuffed calls for a debate and vote on codifying the sanctions. But Corker is coming under growing political pressure over the issue, and last week the Republican senator said he was ready to move forward on the bill pending a briefing from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

If Tillerson cannot persuade lawmakers that Russia has demonstrated a more cooperative stance in Syria, where Russian warplanes are backing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Corker said he would be ready to take action “quickly” on a sanctions bill.

Corker also said last week he was skeptical that Russia had shifted its position on Syria in response to U.S. diplomacy. ““I can just tell you: I see no difference whatsoever,” Corker said. “They continue to work against our interests.”

It remains unclear if Tillerson, who is expected to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee within two weeks for a budget hearing, will ask senators to hold off on sanctions to give him more time to pursue diplomacy with Russia on Syria and Ukraine.

Administration officials said Tillerson is pushing hard to revive the stalled peace process for eastern Ukraine. The so-called Minsk agreement negotiated in 2015 helped end major combat between pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow, and Ukrainian troops, but clashes continue along the front line. Both sides have failed to live up to their obligations under the deal.

“Tillerson is very heavily involved in this situation, including exploring ways to reengage with the negotiating process,” the administration official told FP.

Last month, President Trump discussed how to resolve the conflict in Ukraine when he met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the U.S., the official said.

“President Trump recently expressed his administration’s commitment to remain engaged in resolving the conflict and stressed Russia’s responsibility to fully implement the Minsk agreements, starting with improvement of the security situation in eastern Ukraine,” said a State Department official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.

Any possible progress in the Minsk peace process raises the prospect of eventually easing sanctions against Russia for its support of armed separatists. But lawmakers in Congress may take action first to preclude any softening of sanctions. Some former diplomats and experts say Russia will not be ready to make concessions in Ukraine without more pressure and more sanctions.

In Europe, the political climate has shifted markedly in favor of retaining sanctions against Russia, after revelations that Moscow sought to influence elections in France and elsewhere with more cyber hacking.

Germany and France, which have spearheaded the diplomatic effort on the Minsk agreement, are anxious to see the Trump administration name a U.S. representative to the talks on eastern Ukraine. Victoria Nuland, who served as Washington’s chief diplomat at the Minsk talks, has since retired from her position as the assistant secretary of state for Europe. The State Department has yet to name a successor.

“We certainly need someone to be appointed,” said a European diplomat. “We can’t move very far and very fast without the American envoy.”

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