The US Senate on June 14 overwhelmingly backed deeper sanctions against Russia, cementing into law measures imposed in 2014 as well as a widening of them to target Moscow’s controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe, despite a call by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for “flexibility” that would allow President Donald Trump to more easily adapt US policy towards Russia.
Lawmakers voted 97-2 to attach the sanctions language to a bill sanctioning Iran over its ballistic missile programme and sponsorship of terrorism. “Democrats and Republicans are joining together to warn the president he cannot lift sanctions without our approval,” media reports quoted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as saying.
Democrats had threatened to block the Iran sanctions bill unless lawmakers added an amendment to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine since 2014, as well as in Syria. But the tougher line on Russia was mainly because of its alleged cyber hacking aimed at influencing the outcome of the US elections last November.
The new legislation will also make it harder for the White House to unilaterally slacken or lift any Russia sanctions, after months of speculation that Trump might try to relax the economic pressure on Russia in return for its cooperation in other areas.
Schumer said earlier that the bill would send a “powerful signal to President Trump and the White House that the concern that he might weaken or lift sanctions against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a bipartisan concern, one that the Senate is not going to ignore”.
The amendments turn into law the existing sanctions imposed on Russia three years ago for its annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Moscow rebels in East Ukraine. The measures will also target anyone supplying weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Russians accused of human rights abuses. Russian mining, metals, shipping, and railways companies will also be affected, going beyond the energy and financial firms previously targeted.
The sanctions also target Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that will double the capacity of Gazprom’s existing Nord Stream pipiline, which can transport about 55bn cubic metres a year under the Baltic Sea into Germany. The new US measures could affect European energy companies, including Shell, Engie and OMV, which are financing the pipeline.
Officials in Moscow said earlier said earlier that the adoption of the amendments would draw retaliatory measures. Hours before the Senate vote, the speaker of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, said the sanctions against Russia and also separate ones prolonged on June 13 against officials in Belarus were the result of the West’s contempt towards ethnic Slavs, Interfax news agency reported. “This is beyond logic,” Volodin said, adding that, “those who stand behind these sanctions can be suspected of conspiring against Slavs”.
The measures also drew a sharp response from Germany and Austria, whose governments and companies are heavily involved in Nord Stream 2. In a joint statement, signed by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, the two countries said the amendment heralded a “new and very negative quality in European-American relations... Europe’s energy supply is a matter for Europe, not the United States of America.”
Addressing US lawmakers earlier on June 14, Tillerson said that while Russia should be held accountable for its alleged meddling in last year’s US presidential election campaign, he did not support harsher sanctions. “I would urge... allowing the president the flexibilty to adjust sanctions to meet the need in what is always an evolving diplomatic situation,” Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The US administration needed “the ability to turn the heat up but also maintain the ability to have a constructive dialogue” with Moscow, he added.
The overall Iran and Russia sanctions bill now requires approval from the House of Representatives where there is not expected to be much opposition. The amendments must also still be signed by Trump before becoming law.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said earlier he expected the president to sign the bill, but added that the Senate is ready to override a veto decision, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The overall sanctions legislation could pass as soon as June 15, but the House has not indicated when it will consider the bill, media reports said.
Meanwhile, Trump is under growing pressure about alleged undeclared contacts his team had with the Russians prior to the US elections, which US intelligence officials said were affected in his favour by Russian hacking.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on June 8, former FBI director James Comey said he believed he had been sacked by Trump a month earlier because of the FBI’s investigation into Moscow’s alleged interference in the elections.