Senate to debate dueling Russia sanctions bills

Senate Democrats have unveiled a new set of White House-backed sanctions against Russia to be implemented if Moscow decides to invade Ukraine.

The bill, which comes on the heels of a similar proposal drafted by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) last month, is sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

The sanctions would target Russia over Nord Stream 2, a completed but not yet operational natural gas pipeline that connects Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea.

The legislation would also impose sanctions on top Russian military and government leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, as well as financial institutions. Companies that provide secure messaging systems would also be hit. 

“This legislation makes it absolutely clear that the US Senate will not stand idly by as the Kremlin threatens a re-invasion of Ukraine,” Menendez said in a statement, adding that the “most effective sanction on Russia is a strong and unified Ukraine.”

The White House supports Menendez’s bill, according to a spokesperson for the National Security Council, who said it would “trigger severe costs to Russia’s economy” if Moscow choses to invade.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting in Moscow on Jan. 12.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting in Moscow on Jan. 12.

The main difference between the Menendez legislation and the bill proposed by Cruz is the speed with which its provisions take effect.

Cruz’s proposal, which will be put to a vote this week after he struck a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) last month, would apply sanctions on the pipeline within 15 days of passage – regardless of whether Russia invades Ukraine. It would also give Congress the power to vote to reinstate the sanctions if they are waived by the president. The bill has received the support of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but not the Biden administration.

A State Department spokesperson claimed Cruz’s proposal “will undermine our efforts to deter Russia and remove leverage the United States and our allies and partners possess in this moment all to score political points at home. And it would come at a moment where we need to be closely united with our European partners, including Germany. It makes no sense.”

President Biden
President Biden previously stated that he made it clear to Putin that an invasion of Ukraine would see severe consequences.
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“Senate Dems have a choice,” Cruz tweeted Sunday. “Do they: (1) Stand up to Putin, stop Russian aggression, and support Ukraine & “virtually all of Europe and even half the German government” OR (2) Put partisan loyalty to the Biden WH above US national security? It should be a simple choice.”

Democrats who oppose the Cruz proposal have called for a more strategic response to potential Russian aggression. 

“We’ve got to make sure, if we do sanctions, that the sanctions are focused on the problem and not on collateral folks,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told Politico Monday, adding that the White House “has to do a better job of messaging what the flaws are” in Cruz’s bill.

A Democratic aide told The Post that while the party is hopeful Republicans will be willing to work together in moving the legislation forward, Menendez’s proposal is “a much more comprehensive policy prescription than what’s being put forth by Republicans.”

The aide add that the Democratic bill does include mandatory sanctions on the pipeline, “so the ground is ripe for cooperation.” Any legislation must receive 60 votes to pass, a steep climb in the 50-50 Senate.

Over the past several months, thousands of Russian forces have gathered at the border with Ukraine, amassing more than 100,000 troops. 

Russia has pressed the US and NATO to not allow Ukraine to become a member of the Atlantic alliance, citing national security concerns. The country has also warned the US and NATO against deploying forces or military systems in Ukraine. 

While the US and its allies have declined to promise such a move, talks are taking place this week between Russia, the US and other European allies to discuss the concerns. 

Many fear that Moscow’s growing troop presence along the border indicate an invasion similar to Russia’s annexation of Crimea eight years ago. 

A Russian tank completes a drill near the Ukrainian border.
A Russian tank completes a drill near the Ukrainian border.

If Russia does invade, President Biden has promised severe economic sanctions in response.

“I made it clear to President Putin that we will have severe sanctions, we will increase our presence in Europe, with NATO allies,” Biden told reporters following a call with Putin Dec. 30. 

While he declined to provide further details, the president noted that “we made it clear he cannot, I’ll emphasize, cannot, invade Ukraine.”

Talks between Russia and the US hit a stalemate after security discussion began Monday, with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman calling some of Moscow’s demands “non-starters.”

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman indicated that Russia-US talks had hit a wall.
AFP via Getty Images

“We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open door policy, which has always been central to the NATO alliance,” Sherman said following nearly six hours of talks. 

“We will not forgo bilateral cooperation with sovereign states that wish to work with the United States. And we will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, about Europe without Europe, or about NATO without NATO,” she added. 

Russia has continuously denied that it is planning to invade Ukraine, with Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov saying this week: “There is no reason to fear some kind of escalatory scenario.” 

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