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Trump, Russia, and Sanctions

Russia sanction impact shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Trump, Russia, and Sanctions

The Republican-controlled Congress does not trust President Trump on Russia or on sanctions. As a result, the House is now considering legislation passed by the Senate that would severely limit the administration’s flexibility regarding sanctions on Russia.

How deep is the problem? The Senate approved the legislation on June 19 by a vote of 98-2, ignoring Secretary of State Tillerson’s plea just two days earlier.

Executive Sanctions

The Obama administration issued four executive orders applying sanctions on Russia after Moscow’s illegal seizure and annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Initial sanctions targeted individuals. More serious sanctions targeting certain sectors of the Russian economy followed when the Kremlin inspired and supported armed separatism in eastern Ukraine—particularly after the July 2014 shoot-down of a Malaysia Air Boeing 777 by a Russian-provided missile. While estimates are imprecise, some believe that US and European Union sanctions have cut Russia’s gross domestic product by one percent.

In December 2016, the Obama administration issued another executive order, which applied sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies—the Main Intelligence Directorate (military intelligence) and the Federal Security Service—as well as individual Russians. That order was a response to Moscow’s interference in the US presidential election.

Congress Gets Into The Act

Capitol Hill began seriously considering legislation to codify the Ukraine- and election-related sanctions in law earlier this year. That resulted from a lack of confidence in how Mr. Trump would handle sanctions and Russia.

Candidate Trump had suggested that he might ease sanctions on Moscow without necessarily getting anything in return, such as implementation of the February 2015 Minsk agreement to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine. While his spokesperson has since said those sanctions will remain in place, that has not mollified Congress. Moreover, the president seems blithely unconcerned about Russia’s interference in the US election and has done nothing to try to deter Moscow from future election-hacking.

The Senate thus passed legislation that codifies the Obama executive orders in law and requires Congressional approval or a presidential waiver before sanctions can be lifted. It also authorizes additional sanctions on Russia. The House is now considering the Senate bill. While the White House reportedly is lobbying to soften its terms, Speaker Ryan on June 22 expressed support for sanctions and said he wants “to get moving on [the bill].”

The Impact Of Congressional Sanctions

Congressionally-mandated sanctions will tie the president’s hands and will likely have the unintended effect of devaluing the sanctions as a tool to encourage a change in Russian behavior. The reason: Congress has a track record of applying sanctions quite easily but taking far more time to remove them.

For Moscow, the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment offers the prime example of this. Jackson-Vanik denied permanent normal trade relations status with the United States to the Soviet Union until religious minorities—primarily Soviet Jews—were allowed to emigrate. The amendment applied to the post-Soviet states after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

Russia almost immediately permitted open emigration. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews left in the early 1990s for Israel, Europe, and the United States. The Clinton administration found Russia in full compliance with Jackson-Vanik’s provisions in 1997, yet it took Congress another 15 years to graduate Russia from the amendment. And Congress only removed Russia from the Jackson-Vanik provisions in the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which applied new sanctions on Russia.

If Moscow believes that Congressional sanctions will remain in place for years and years after it makes the desired policy change, it will have less incentive to make the change.

A Challenge For Trump

The House will probably pass the sanctions legislation. Mr. Trump can then sign or veto. Congress has muddied the waters by putting the Russia sanctions language in a bill regarding additional sanctions on Iran. The administration supports the latter.

A presidential veto would provoke a major outcry on Capitol Hill, including from many Republicans. And it likely would prove futile. By all appearances, Congress would have the votes to override the veto, putting the sanctions into law and handing the president an embarrassing political defeat.

Can the president do anything to avert this? The White House has to find a way to persuade Congress that Mr. Trump has got religion on sanctions and understands that the United States should impose consequences on Russia for its election meddling. That will not be easy; aside from a few of his signature tweets asserting that the Obama administration did nothing to respond to the Russian hacking, Mr. Trump barely even acknowledges that there is a problem.

In this regard, lots of eyes will be watching the expected meeting with Russian President Putin on the margins of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg on July 7 and 8. Mr. Trump needs to raise the hacking issue and starkly warn Mr. Putin against a repetition. If he fails to do that, he should expect to return home to a firestorm of criticism … and guaranteed Congressional passage—with a veto-proof majority—of the Russia sanctions legislation.

Steven Pifer is Senior Fellow – Foreign Policy, at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. This article originally appeared here.

Russia sanctions will impact shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Congress, Russia, and Sanctions

Congressional interest is growing in enacting sanctions on Russia related to its continuing aggression against Ukraine and its efforts to influence the US presidential election. These would codify and supplement sanctions applied by the Obama administration through executive action.

Congress should proceed in a smart way that maximizes the prospects that sanctions will succeed in achieving their goal. Their goal is not simply to punish Moscow but to effect a change in Kremlin policy.

Unfortunately, congressional sanctions against Russia have a checkered history. The Jackson-Vanik amendment, passed into law in 1974, denied the Soviet Union (and later Russia) permanent normal trade relations status with the United States until Moscow allowed free emigration for religious minorities, particularly Soviet Jews.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government opened the gates. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews left, bound for Israel, the United States, and Europe. In 1994, the Clinton administration found Russia in full compliance with the Jackson-Vanik amendment’s requirements.

Despite that, Russia remained subject to the amendment for another eighteen years. Congress only graduated Russia from Jackson-Vanik and granted it permanent normal trade relations status in 2012—when US business faced the prospect of losing access to certain World Trade Organization benefits. Congress, moreover, wrapped the Jackson-Vanik graduation provisions into the Magnitsky Act, which imposed a new set of sanctions on Russia.

The problem with the Jackson-Vanik narrative is that Russia may not pay much heed to new congressional sanctions. Executive branch sanctions, on the other hand, can be applied, and lifted, quickly. In connection with the Kremlin’s aggression in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration issued four executive orders setting visa and financial sanctions on individuals as well as broader sanctions on the Russian financial, defense, and energy sectors.

President Trump has suggested, however, that he might lift sanctions even if Moscow does nothing. That would abandon significant leverage and break with the sanctions regime imposed by the European Union. Concern about Mr. Trump’s position on sanctions has helped motivate congressional action.

Last week, 10 senators, led by Republicans John McCain and Lindsay Graham and Democrat Ben Cardin, unveiled the Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017. It would codify in law the Obama administration sanctions as well as apply new sanctions, including in response to Russia’s interference in the US presidential election.

Congress should proceed with this legislation, understanding that the objective is not just punishment but to persuade Moscow to change its behavior. As it moves forward, Congress should keep in mind several points.

First, sanctions should be related to particular actions, and the Kremlin should have a clear understanding of what it must do to gain sanctions relief. For example, over the past two years, the West has tied the lifting of those sanctions arising from Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine to Moscow’s full implementation of the 2015 Minsk settlement accord.

Second, set realistic conditions for sanctions relief. The risk of overreach is that, if the Russian government concludes that the political and other costs of compliance far outweigh the benefit of getting the sanctions lifted, there will be no compliance. Another reason to consider setting realistic conditions as regards Ukraine-related sanctions is to maintain consistency with the European Union and a united Western front.

Third, do not double sanctions up. A sanction that is put in place because Russia continues a simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine should not also be applied because of Russian interference in the US election campaign. If Moscow sees that it must meet different sets of conditions in order to get a sanction lifted, the chances that it will meet either set are greatly reduced. Why take an action to meet a condition if the sanction would remain in place for some other reason?

Fourth, include a mechanism for rapid lifting of a sanction if the underlying condition is met. Moscow should have good grounds to believe that, if it takes the desired action, the sanction will quickly come off.

A growing mood on Capitol Hill favors enacting sanctions on Russia, and that appears necessary in light of the president’s view of their efficacy. Congress should, however, tailor its sanctions legislation to strengthen the prospect that sanctions will succeed in effecting a change in Moscow’s policy.

Steven Pifer is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.