In the most significant example of bipartisanship since the 2016 election, both houses of Congress voted to impose sanctions on Russia. The sanctions are intended to hold the Russian government accountable for its interference in the United States’ 2016 election and its annexation of Crimea.
The sanctions will target Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as the oligarchs who have close relationships with him. They will also focus on abusers of human rights, and critical parts of the Russian economy. The bill also levies restrictions on North Korea and Iran. One of the most interesting components of the bill is that it limits President Trump’s power to ease them– he must seek approval from Congress if he wishes to roll back any part of the legislation.
The House voted 419 to 3 in favor of the bill while the Senate voted 98 to 2. These margins ensure that the president will not be able to veto the bill without risking the political embarrassment that would come when Congress inevitably overrides his veto.
While four intelligence agencies found that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election, President Trump has been steadfast in his skepticism of the intelligence community’s findings. He has repeatedly and publicly expressed his doubts about the allegations against Russia — although he has been unable to identify any other nation that might have been responsible for the interference. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump expressed a level of admiration for Putin and has often expressed his desire to have a more productive relationship with the Kremlin.
Recently, President Trump has indicated that he is willing to sign the bill into law. On ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said: “We support where the legislation is now and will continue working with the House and Senate to put those tough sanctions in place on Russia until the situation in Ukraine is fully resolved, and it certainly isn’t right now.”
In response to Congress’ vote, the Kremlin has withdrawn the usage of two recreational compounds that are used by American diplomats. They have also stated that they will remove a significant number of U.S. diplomatic officials from Moscow; this would include 700 staff members. When former President Barack Obama originally implemented these punishments, President Putin did not retaliate — most likely because he believed he could work with President Trump to ease the sanctions. Now that the U.S. government has taken a more aggressive stance, Russia is responding in kind.
President Trump may be willing to sign the bill into law, but it is apparent that he does not want to. He is only signing the legislation because he knows Congress will override his veto — which could cause greater political issues for the president. The fact that Congress included limits to Trump’s powers in this regard shows that they do not trust his judgment when it comes to Russia. Whether or not this bill will create tension between Republican lawmakers and the president remains to be seen, but this bill marks the first time that a significant number of Republicans in Congress have been willing to defy the president. The question is, will this policy work?
Sanctions are largely seen as ineffective — especially when used against countries like North Korea and Russia. However, they can be much more powerful when they become law. The Hill states: “One of the more useful aspects of sanctions is that they can be imposed and removed with relative ease, a flexible stick, as it were. Once they are law, sanctions are notoriously difficult to lift, and this flexibility is gone.” Without this flexibility, American diplomats will not have the leverage they might need to influence the nation that has been targeted by the sanctions.
Historically, sanctions against Russia do not seem to have changed their behavior. While they have certainly hurt the Kremlin, they have not caused enough pain for them to cease the actions that the international community is punishing them for. If there truly is less flexibility when sanctions become legislation, it may become even more difficult to discourage Russia’s actions. There are those who believe the current restrictions are working — even though the Kremlin will not admit it. Will these additional actions by the U.S. government be enough to force Putin to come to the table? Only time will tell.