In a direct blow to the president’s diplomatic initiative to explore the possibility of rapprochement with Vladimir Putin, Congress has agreed to sweeping new sanctions against Russia.
Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle came to a consensus Saturday, pushing forward a bill that finally punishes the Russians for a slew of hostile acts carried out against the United States and its interests over the last couple of years.
Here are five things you need to know about Congress’ sanctions bill on Russia.
1. The bill seeks to punish the Russian Federation for not only meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but violating Ukrainian sovereignty, illegally annexing Crimea, promoting military activity in eastern Ukraine and committing human rights violations.
2. Congress strategically included sanctions against Iran and North Korea in the piece of legislation primarily targeting Russia. The decision to push through a sanctions omnibus bill is quite clever: it forces the administration to choose between its desire to punish North Korea and Iran and the prospect of cozy relations with Russia, something Trump wishes to explore. Grouping the three hostile states together also sends a clear message to Putin: Russia is an enemy of the United States.
3. The bill places a check on the president’s power to undermine sanctions against hostile powers. “The new legislation would sharply limit the president’s ability to suspend or terminate the sanctions — a remarkable handcuffing by a Republican-led Congress six months into Mr. Trump’s tenure,” reports The New York Times. “It is also the latest Russia-tinged turn for a presidency consumed by investigations into the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian officials, including conversations between Trump advisers and Russian officials about prospective sanctions relief.”
4. Trump may veto the bill. The president has argued that he needs flexibility to negotiate with foreign leaders. By limiting the president’s ability to terminate sanctions, Trump is left with less options when he sits down to strike a possible deal with Putin. The Russians will know up-front that sanctions-relief is not a concession that Trump could provide. In addition, foreign policy falls within the realm of unilateral presidential power. Trump may see Congress’ bill as a vehicle to undermine his authority as president. As it stands, the House looks like it will pass the bill; it’s set to hold a vote Tuesday. The Senate will vote on the bill shortly after, however, it has not provided a specific time. Senators from both sides of the aisle appear generally supportive of the bill as it targets three hostile state actors. If the Senate passes the bill, it will then be up to the president to decide whether or not he wants to use his veto pen.
5. Russia is not happy about the prospect of new sanctions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Monday that new sanctions against his country will turn out to be "counterproductive" and "harmful." He added that while Russia sees the move “extremely negatively,” it will wait to see if the bill becomes law before it takes any “retaliatory measures."
"Talking about some retaliatory measures without even having clear information about the decisions, passed or rejected, would be counterproductive. We are not going to do this,” he insisted.