June 15, 2017

Senate overwhelmingly passes legislation on Russia sanctions

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Measure mandates congressional review for sanctions to be altered

WASHINGTON – The Senate on June 14 overwhelmingly passed – by a vote of 97 to 2 – new legislation imposing sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and Syria, and its attempt to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. The measure, which is an amendment to an Iran sanctions bill, also allows Congress to block the administration from unilaterally lifting or scaling back sanctions imposed against Moscow. On June 15, the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act, with the Russia sanctions amendment attached, was passed 98-2.

Leaders of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and the Foreign Relations Committee had announced a bipartisan agreement on the bill to strengthen and expand U.S. sanctions on Russia on June 12.

U.S. Senate Banking Committee Chair Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) issued a news release in which they noted that agreement calls for “a mandated congressional review” if the White House sought to ease sanctions.

According to the release posted by the Banking Committee, the amendment to a bill on Iran sanctions “maintains and substantially expands sanctions” against Russia for violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, cyberattacks, interference in elections and continuing aggression in Syria.

The release noted that the amendment will:

• Provide for a mandated congressional review if sanctions are relaxed, suspended or terminated.

• Codify and strengthen existing sanctions contained in executive orders on Russia, including the sanctions’ impact on certain Russian energy projects and on debt financing in key economic sectors.

• Impose new sanctions on: corrupt Russian actors; those seeking to evade sanctions; those involved in serious human rights abuses; those supplying weapons to the Assad regime; those conducting malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government; those involved in corrupt privatization of state-owned assets; and those doing business with the Russian intelligence and defense sectors.

• Allow broad new sanctions on key sectors of Russia’s economy, including mining, metals, shipping and railways.

• Authorize robust assistance to strengthen democratic institutions and counter disinformation across Central and Eastern European countries that are vulnerable to Russian aggression and interference.

• Require a study on the flow of illicit finance involving Russia and a formal assessment of U.S. economic exposure to Russian state-owned entities.

Calling the proposed amendment “a comprehensive deal,” The Washington Post reported on June 12 that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filed the amendment late on June 12, after extensive talks with Sens. Corker and Crapo.

In additional to Sens. Cardin and Brown, The Post said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), vocal Russia critics John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), as well as Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) were also involved in various stages of the discussion.

Three different bills increasing sanctions on Russia had been filed in the Senate in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria and its meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Speaking on the U.S. Senate floor on June 7, Sen. McCain had spoken about the need for a strong Russia sanctions amendment to the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017.

Sen. McCain stated, “In just the last three years under Vladimir Putin, Russia has invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, threatened NATO allies and intervened militarily in Syria, leaving a trail of death, destruction and broken promises in his wake. And of course, last year, Russia attacked the foundations of American democracy with a cyber and information campaign to interfere in America’s 2016 election. …”

He continued:

“But in the last eight months, what price has Russia paid for attacking American democracy? Hardly any at all. …What has Russia’s reaction been to America’s tepid reaction to its aggressive behavior? More of the same. More aggression. More meddling. …

“We must take our own side in this fight-not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans. It’s time to respond to Russia’s attack on American democracy with strength, with resolve, with common purpose, and with action. …

“We need a strong Russia sanctions amendment. We need it now. And we need it on this piece of legislation. We need this amendment because we have no time to waste. The United States of America needs to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy. There is no greater threat to our freedoms than attacks on our ability to choose our own leaders free from foreign interference. And so we must act accordingly, and we must act now.”

The Washington Post noted that the Senate had refrained from putting a new sanctions bill to a vote because Sen. Corker had said he wanted to give the administration of President Donald Trump time to make progress in cooperation with Russia over the war in Syria.

“I wanted to give [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson until two weeks ago,” he told The Post, adding, “I’ve been ready the whole time.” Asked whether the White House was on board with the measure, Sen. Corker hesitated, noting: “I have to believe that the administration has to at least strongly consider supporting this.”

The New York Times reported on June 13: “The bipartisan measure would place the White House in an uncomfortable position, arriving amid sweeping investigations into ties between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia. The sanctions package would also cut against the administration’s stated aim to reshape the United States’ relationship with Russia after Mr. Trump took office.”

Sen. Schumer issued a statement describing the new sanctions as “a powerful and bipartisan statement to Russia.”

Sen. Cardin was quoted by the news media as commenting, “I’d be very, very surprised if the president vetoes this bill.”

After the legislation was passed on June 14, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) commented: “The United States Senate today took an important step towards holding Russia accountable for its aggression against U.S. allies and interests and its efforts to undermine faith in our democratic institutions and values. I was honored to have Speaker of Ukraine Parliament Andriy Parubiy with me today as the Senate passed these important sanctions and policies that send a clear signal that Russia’s destabilizing and destructive actions must have consequences, and that the United States will stand up for its allies like Ukraine while holding Russia accountable for its bad behavior. The important sanctions and policies included in this legislation will also provide constructive guidance to the administration as it continues to formulate its policies and demonstrate the depth of the support in Congress for a firm and principled approach to Russia.”

Mr. Parubiy was present for the vote as a guest of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, which is co-chaired by Sens. Portman and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

Sources: U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Office of Sen. John McCain; The Washington Post, The New York Times, Office of Sen. Rob Portman.

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