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Trump’s Moment of Truth?

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA – MAY 10, 2017: Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US President Donald Trump, and Russia’s Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak (L-R) during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander ShcherbakTASS via Getty Images)

New Senate Bill Takes Russia Sanctions Out of the President’s Control

by Maia Otarashvili

US-Russia relations under President Trump continue to be at a standstill. This new course, or lack thereof, has halted the previously hostile relations between the two countries: the Obama administration’s relationship with Russia was tenuous to say the least. Under President Obama Russia was hit with two different types of sanctions: first, those that resulted from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine from 2014 to present, and later those that resulted from Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election in 2016. In contrast, the Trump administration, although it’s been in power for over 150 days, does not have an official or coherent Russia policy. In order for that to change, the administration would have to fill the many empty seats in its policymaking institutions. But that alone won’t be enough if the president himself does not decide to openly and seriously talk about the future of US-Russia relations.

Thus, a recent US Senate move, which intends to deepen the Russia sanctions and give the legislative branch power to block the president if he tries to weaken or remove the Russia sanctions, is a welcome development after months of uncertainty. 

RUSSIA IN DOUBLE TROUBLE

Putin had previously fought wars in Ukraine, and Syria. Russia was also involved in cyber-attacks on European nations like Estonia, and had more recently funded disinformation campaigns and far-right nationalistic parties in Western Europe. But the developments that unfolded during the 2016 US presidential election served to further solidify Russia’s status as a hostile nation – its democracy-disrupting efforts had truly gone global. A recent Washington Post article recounted the last few months of President Obama’s time in the White House, after he received a CIA intelligence report in August 2016. The report, which was drawing from a source “deep inside the Russian government” explained that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been directly involved “in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit” the U.S. presidential race.

“The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.”

Despite Putin’s denial of such involvement on many later occasions, the intelligence report proved his direct involvement in Russia’s actions aimed at destabilizing America’s democracy. As the Washington Post article recounted, President Obama spent months figuring out how to respond:

“Over that five-month interval, the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure. … But in the end, in late December, Obama approved a modest package combining measures that had been drawn up to punish Russia for other issues — expulsions of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds — with economic sanctions so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic.”

These sanctions were just one of many things that unfolded throughout the first six months of the Trump presidency. Trump and his team are being investigated for possible collusion with the Russians. Additional reports proving the Kremlin’s involvement in the election and in the Democratic National Committee hackings have been made public, and a special prosecutor was appointed to carry out his own investigation of the president’s team after Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May.

While the US election-related sanctions do seem more symbolic than substantive, they serve to intensify the existing Russia sanctions, which were put in place after the US and its European allies made a decision to punish Russia for invading Ukraine. Although those sanctions continue to have a damaging effect on Russia’s economy, they haven’t actually stopped Putin’s aggressive actions.

SENATE REPUBLICANS IN CHARGE OF US-RUSSIA RELATIONS?

The Republicans in Congress aren’t very vocal about the alleged Trump-Russia ties. The party leadership hasn’t made a habit of criticizing the president for any of his often controversial actions and statements. Despite the many scandals, they are standing by Trump. But Republican politicians have also managed to separate Trump and Putin in their narrative so well that they are managing to criticize Russia and Putin without condemning Trump. This careful maneuvering was apparent in the new bill that the Senate approved on June 15 with 98 votes in favor and 2 against.

The bill intends to impose additional sanctions on Russia as a punishment for three major wrongdoings: Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, its engagement in Syria, and its invasion of Crimea. The bill would sanction Russians who violate human rights, supply weapons to Assad, or are involved in the Russian defense and intelligence industry. It also sanctions Russia’s mining, shipping, and railway industries.

This bill is a part of a larger sanctions bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran as well. It would target people involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, and would apply terrorism sanctions to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, as well as enforce an arms embargo. Unlike with Russia, President Trump has been vocal about supporting US sanctions on Iran.

Despite the new round of sanctions on Russia and Iran, the most important part of this bill takes the decision-making process out of Trump’s hands by requiring a 30-day Congressional review period of any decision the president may make to weaken or lift sanctions. According to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Congressional review component would “ensure that the United States continues to punish President Putin for his reckless and destabilizing actions. . . . These additional sanctions will also send a powerful and bipartisan statement to Russia and any other country who might try to interfere in our elections that they will be punished.”

The US House of Representatives still must approve the bill before it goes to Trump’s desk for final ratification. Despite its success in Senate, the bill was stalled by House Republicans, citing a minor procedural issue, which is supposed to be easy to solve. However, according to recent reports, the White House has been quietly lobbying to have the House Republicans water down the Russia sanctions portion of the bill, which would explain the delay. These reports are likely to be true, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears to be against its current Congressional review clause. During his more recent Congressional testimony, Mr. Tillerson said that President Donald Trump needs to have “the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation” with Russia. Tillerson has also mentioned that there is still a potential of holding promising talks between Moscow and Washington.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 28: President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Also pictured, from left, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. On Saturday, President Trump is making several phone calls with world leaders from Japan, Germany, Russia, France and Australia. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 28: President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Also pictured, from left, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. On Saturday, President Trump is making several phone calls with world leaders from Japan, Germany, Russia, France and Australia. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

TRUMP’S MOMENT OF TRUTH?

Despite the hiccup in the House, the Iran-Russia sanctions bill is likely to pass House approval, as the issues it addresses enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support in Washington. After that point it will end up on Trump’s desk to be signed. Whether or not he signs the bill will be the moment of truth: will Donald Trump veto the bill in fear of jeopardizing the future of his administration’s relationship with Russia? Or will he sign the bill in hopes of putting to rest at least some of the allegations about Russia collusion? If he vetoes the bill he could look guilty considering the fact that his team is under federal investigation for alleged Russia ties. If he does sign the bill, his hopes of restarting friendly relations with Russia will be put on hold indefinitely.

Republican legislators, at least the overwhelming majority of them, have stood by the president since he was elected, and haven’t shown major distrust even amid multiple ongoing federal investigations. Why is Congress taking the management of these sanctions out of Trump’s hands now? Although Republican politicians won’t formally admit that they don’t trust the president with Russia, they understand the severity of the Russian threat well enough to want to do something about it with or without the president’s support. Moreover, they understand that the president’s options in punishing or not punishing Russia are very limited and require careful contemplation.

Trump hasn’t publically endorsed the idea of the Russia sanctions, and on many occasions, he has expressed his respect and even admiration for Putin. Now that it seems the Russia investigations aren’t going away any time soon, he and his team have resorted to actively avoiding questions about Russian meddling in the elections, claiming the president hasn’t been discussing it with his aides. It is easy to understand why the president would try to avoid discussing the matter in public: if he condemns Russia’s actions, he might fear that he would be at least indirectly questioning the legitimacy of his own presidency. Afterall, the main reason for the Russian meddling was to get Mr. Trump elected. This is a fear many Republican politicians understand well. For example, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham has said on many occasions that he thinks Trump believes that pursuing Russia for interfering in the election suggests that he didn’t win fairly. “I see no evidence of the president’s campaign colluding with the Russians. … I see all kind of evidence of the Russians trying to destroy our election and destroy democracy.’’ Separating the two issues may be the best way to get Trump to sign the bill.

On the other hand, if he is to discuss the matter in a positive light, he would risk alienating practically the entire country – according to recent public opinion polls, 70% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Russia. Moreover, according to Gallup’s June 23 poll, 74% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion on Putin – a disapproval rating almost as high as Putin’s 81% approval rating at home. Thus, while the president and his administration practically have their hands tied when it comes to Russia, Congress has decided to act.

If and how the additional sanctions will pay off is a separate question. At the moment, none of the punishment mechanisms the US has enacted have fit the crimes Russia has committed. But at least after months of uncertainty, the US leadership is choosing to send a message to Putin, albeit a whimpering one.

*Maia Otarashvili is Research Fellow and Program Manager of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. She holds an MA in Globalization, Development, and Transitions from the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her current research is focused on the post-communist countries of the Eurasia region, including the Black Sea and Caucasus states.

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