The FINANCIAL — The U.S. Senate on July 27 nearly unanimously approved tough sanctions on Russia and sent the legislation to the White House, presenting President Donald Trump with a dilemma as he seeks to improve relations with Moscow.
The bill approved by 98-2 cements into law existing sanctions on Russia over its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election and aggression in Ukraine and adds new measures penalizing Russia’s military intervention in Syria while requiring Trump to secure Congress’s approval to ease or waive those sanctions.
While the White House has said it welcomes the tough sanctions against Russia as well as Iran and North Korea included in the bill, it has objected to tying the president’s hands as he seeks to make good on campaign promises to cooperate with Russia in areas like defeating the Islamic State extremist group, according to RFE/RL.
The White House said late on July 27 that Trump still has made no decision whether to sign or veto the bill. The strong bipartisan support for the bill in Congress, where it passed the House of Representatives by 419-3, means any veto almost certainly would be overridden.
The bill’s rebuff to Trump’s priorities on Russia comes as investigations into Russian’s alleged efforts to help him get elected heat up in Congress and at the Justice Department.
Most immediately, if signed into law the measure would prevent Trump from returning diplomatic property seized by his predecessor Barack Obama last December in retaliation for what U.S. intelligence agencies said was Russia’s bid to undermine the U.S. democratic process.
Russia, which has repeatedly denied interfering in the campaign, has sought the return of the property in high-level talks with the U.S. State Department this year and has promised retaliation if it is not returned.
On July 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Congress’s action increases already high tensions between Washington and Moscow and is “sad.” He promised a response in kind.
“It’s impossible to endlessly tolerate this boorishness toward our country,” Putin told reporters as he visited Finland.
“This goes beyond all reasonable bounds,” Putin said. “And now these sanctions — they are also absolutely unlawful from the point of view of international law.”
“It’s very sad that U.S.-Russian relations are being sacrificed to resolve internal policy issues in the U.S.,” he said.
“It’s a pity, because acting together we could be solving jointly the most acute problems that worry the peoples of Russia and the United States much more efficiently,” he added.
But members of Congress said the legislation was necessary in light of evidence of Russian meddling that has come to light.
“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,” said Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain (Republican-Arizona).
Leaders from Trump’s own Republican party urged him to sign the bill.
“I cannot imagine anybody is seriously thinking about vetoing this bill,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee).
“It’s not good for any president — and most governors don’t like to veto things that are going to be overridden. It shows a diminishment of their authority. I just don’t think that’s a good way to start off as president,” Corker said.
The lengthy bill targets Putin and oligarchs close to him with sanctions over Russian corruption and human rights abuses. Also hit hard are critical sectors of the Russian economy, including weapons sales and energy exports.
The bill was revised to address concerns voiced by U.S. oil companies that sanctions on Russia’s energy sector could backfire and hit them as well, to Moscow’s benefit. The bill raised the threshold for when U.S. firms would be prohibited from being part of energy projects that also include Russian businesses.
Lawmakers said they also made adjustments so the sanctions on Russia’s energy sector don’t undercut the ability of U.S. allies in Europe to get access to oil and gas resources outside of Russia.
European leaders have indicated these changes may not be enough to allay their opposition to the bill.
The North Korea sanctions are intended to thwart Pyongyang’s ambition for nuclear weapons by cutting off access to the cash it needs for development.
The bill prohibits ships owned by North Korea or by countries that refuse to comply with UN resolutions against it from operating in American waters or docking at U.S. ports. Goods produced by North Korea’s forced labor would be prohibited from entering the United States under the bill.
The sanctions package imposes mandatory penalties on people involved in Iran’s ballistic-missile program and anyone who does business with them. The measure would apply terrorism sanctions to the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
With reporting by AP, New York Times, and Reuters