In December, an outgoing President Barack Obama imposed a series of sanctions on Russia by executive order — overdue retaliation for the Kremlin’s brazen efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. On Wednesday, the Senate voted 97–2 to codify those sanctions and others into law, and prevent President Trump, who has been alarmingly warm toward the authoritarian regime in Moscow, from undoing them at will. At a moment when America’s policy toward a geopolitical adversary seems up for grabs, this is an important reassertion of tough-mindedness toward Moscow.
The sanctions language, hammered out by a coalition of Republican and Democratic senators, is surprisingly robust. The sanctions imposed by President Obama targeted two Russian intelligence agencies — the GRU and the FSB – as well as three companies that provided them material support, and four GRU officers. While keeping those sanctions in place, the amendment expands sanctions to Russia’s all-important energy sector, including its railways and mining operations. Under the proposed bill, any energy project involving a Russian company, as well as any foreign firm that makes a sizable investment in Russia’s attempt to develop next-generation oil-procurement capacities, is liable to sanctions. In a country whose economic fortunes are heavily dependent on oil, this could prove a significant blow, provided it is aggressively enforced.
Discretionary sanctions also apply to investment in the construction of Russian energy-export pipelines — for example, the controversial Nord Stream II pipeline. This massive project, which would link Russia to Germany while bypassing Ukraine, would double the Russian natural-gas company Gazprom’s capacity to move oil directly into Europe and make the Continent even more dependent on Russian resources.
Additionally, and no less significantly, the bill mandates sanctions on any person or entity “that engages in a significant transaction with a person that is part of, or operates for or on behalf of, the defense or intelligence sectors of the Government of the Russian Federation.” Russia accounts for about 8 percent of annual global arms sales, and Moscow has been making heavy investments in its military capacities. Under this bill, the Treasury Department would have substantial power to punish companies that contribute to Russia’s military buildup.
The amendment reportedly has not thrilled the White House, which wants to retain its unilateral authority to impose and lift sanctions. However, the sanctions language was authored by Idaho Republican Mike Crapo, and it is attached to a sanctions bill targeting Iran, authored by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker. Assuming that the bill arrives on the president’s desk essentially unchanged, it would make for an awkward situation: To preserve his current latitude, President Trump would have to reject a Republican-sponsored bill that also tightens the screws on the Iranian regime he himself wants to squeeze.
House Republicans, to smooth the road, might be inclined to soften the bill’s Russia-related provisions. They shouldn’t. We know that sanctions can have an effect: U.S. and European Union sanctions, combined with plummeting oil prices, pushed Russia into a recession in 2015. We also need to push back hard against a Russia that engages in more and more aggressive adventures abroad, especially in Ukraine and Syria. This bill sends a clear signal to Moscow and to our Western European allies, even if the administration has at times seemed painfully conflicted.
It is, in the end, because of the White House that Congress has chosen to reassert this authority. The president’s unwillingness to make firm commitments to keep President Obama’s sanctions in place or to pledge America’s continued support to its NATO obligations has created widespread anxiety at a precarious time. Republicans and Democrats agree — and almost unanimously — that this is no time to go wobbly. When this bill comes to the president’s desk, he should sign it, and join the consensus against Putin’s regime.