This Week in Info War

Russia’s mixed reaction to Senate vote tightening U.S. sanctions

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On 15 June, the U.S. Senate voted 98-2 in favor of a draft bill that would impose new sanctions on Russia and force President Trump to get congressional approval before easing any existing restrictions. The measure is intended to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential elections, annexing Crimea, invading eastern Ukraine and supporting the brutal Syrian government in its six-year long civil war. If passed in the House of Representatives and signed into law by Trump, the bill would enact sanctions—including those on Russian energy projects—previously established by executive order under the Obama administration.

The legislation also allows new sanctions on Russian mining, metals, shipping and railways, and targets Russians guilty of conducting cyber attacks or supplying weapons to Syria’s government. In addition, it sets up a review process that would require Trump to get congressional approval before taking any action to ease, suspend or lift any sanctions on Russia. If the measure becomes law, it could complicate relations with some EU member states. Germany and Austria said the new punitive measures could expose European companies involved in Russian projects to fines. 

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson questioned the bill and urged Congress to ensure that any sanctions package “allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation.” Although the legislation has bipartisan support in the Senate, White House opposition could give House Republicans cold feet about voting for it. 

Russia’s state-run media criticized the Senate vote and gave prominence to Tillerson’s testimony. Both RT and Sputnik also emphasized German and Austrian objections that the bill would violate international law and has the “real aim of benefitting the U.S. oil and gas sector.”  RT broadcast an interview with a European MP who made the dubious claim that Russia’s Nordstream 2 project—which could be slowed by tighter U.S. sanctions—was “essentially a commercial project.” Meanwhile, Russian Duma members claimed that the high degree of “anti-Russian hysteria” in the United States led to the bill’s approval by the Senate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin took a milder line, however, apparently not yet willing to shut the door for good on prospects for better relations with the Trump administration. Although he criticized additional sanctions as harmful, Putin said talk of Russian retaliation was premature and that he would wait to see how the sanctions situation evolved. On 15 June, during his annual call-in program, Russia’s leader said the sanctions bill “seemed to come out of nowhere” and seemed to reflect a domestic political struggle in the United States.

Indeed, in the past few days Putin has tried to minimize the impact of Western sanctions. In his call-in program, he claimed that Western companies have lost twice the money Russia has. He also told U.S. film director Oliver Stone that anti-Russian sanctions have strengthened cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

In reality, the Western sanctions regime—with its limited scope and many loopholes—has had only a mixed effect. On the one hand, it helped push Russia into a painful economic crisis that has endured since 2014 (though the drop in oil prices has hurt more) and has been an important tool around which to rally Western opposition to Russian aggression. On the other hand, after three years the Russian economy has adjusted. There is little evidence the sanctions have spurred a decline in popular support for the regime, and they do not appear to have had much of an effect on Russia’s belligerent behavior. 

Despite Putin’s comments, however, there reportedly is considerable Kremlin “nervousness” about how the new Senate package will affect Russia’s elites. Tighter sanctions are seen as a serious potential threat to business activity and the elite’s freedom of movement. But it’s unlikely they will lead to an elite split over Russia’s future course of action.