US sanctions on Russia: How Washington's actions may impact stability across three continents

He did it grudgingly. Despite calling it "seriously flawed", Donald Trump finally caved in and signed into law a package of sanctions against Russia, North Korea and Iran. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was not happy about it. But the legislative branch was unanimous in its stance that the controversial bill was necessary. This was evident from voting numbers — 439-3 in the House and 98-2 in the Senate. It had clear bipartisan support, with Republicans and Democrats both saying they are happy with it, and House speaker Paul Ryan saying the bill sends a "powerful message to our adversaries that they will be held accountable for their actions".

But now that it is law, what exactly is in it?

Constraints

Perhaps the most important provisions, and certainly the most contested, relate to the limits on President Donald Trump's authority to cancel existing sanctions. Former president Barack Obama imposed sanctions targeting individuals and firms connected to Russian cyber-espionage and its intervention in Ukraine. He did this through executive orders.

File image of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. AP

File image of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. AP

These executive orders are now enshrined in law, and if Trump wants to waive them — perhaps as part of talks to improve ties with the Kremlin — he will have to consult Congress. These include an updated executive order in December 2016 targeting Russian intelligence agencies accused of trying to interfere in the 2016 White House race.

The new law also requires new sanctions targeting Russians identified by the US government as being involved in cyber-attacks, political subversion in Europe, corruption, rights abuses, the arming of Syria or — crucially — investment in the oil sector. It orders the US state department to look at measures to help Ukraine find new sources of energy, and shake off its reliance on gas from Russia.

However, in most cases, the authority to decide which Russian targets fall foul of the new law still rests with the president and his advisers — and it is not clear to what extent Trump will use this.

Targets

The text of the bills makes Congress' concerns clear, and draws a roadmap to tougher measures.

The law, for example, demands that the administration draw up a report within 180 days to identify "political figures and oligarchs in the Russian Federation, as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth". These elite figures are to be listed, along with their family assets and income streams, and thus could be targeted in future rounds of sanctions.

A separate report is also ordered, to "identify, investigate, map and disrupt illicit financial flows linked to the Russian Federation if such flows affect the United States' financial system or those of major US allies". The bill also accuses Russia of using corruption and subterfuge to disrupt political life in Europe and former Soviet republics in Eurasia. Russian actions, it alleges, "sow distrust in democratic institutions and actors, promote xenophobic and illiberal views, and otherwise undermine European unity".

The law mandates the US government to spend $250 million over the 2018-19 financial year to counter Russian propaganda.

Iran and North Korea

The bill is not merely restricted to Russia, though that is the one aspect which has received the most media attention. It also directs Trump to impose tougher sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile programme and expands sanctions targeting the covert wing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to the entire corps.

And it toughens sanctions on North Korea, including new rules to prevent foreign banks from opening US accounts to assist North Korean entities, while asking the state department to revisit the question of designating Pyongyang a state sponsor of terrorism.

Affected countries aren't happy

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev called the sanctions a "full-fledged economic war" on Moscow, saying they crushed hopes for repairing ties and demonstrated President Donald Trump's "total weakness... in the most humiliating way".

Medvedev warned the move would have "consequences", saying, "It ends hopes for improving our relations with the new US administration."

Taunting the notoriously thin-skinned US president, Medvedev added, "The Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way."

Russia's foreign ministry called the sanctions "dangerous" and "short-sighted". In a statement, it said global stability is at risk, a matter that Moscow said the US must bear responsibility for. "We have already shown that we are not going to leave hostile acts unanswered... and we obviously reserve the right to take retaliatory measures," it said.

Iran said that the new sanctions were a violation of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers which had eased sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme, an agreement which Trump has repeatedly threatened to tear up. "We believe that the nuclear deal has been violated and we will react appropriately," deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said on state television.

The mounting crisis also creates a difficult position for President Hassan Rouhani, a 68-year-old moderate who won re-election largely thanks to his efforts at repairing relations with the West.

EU ready to retaliate if need be

To date, the sanctions have been coordinated on both sides of the Atlantic to maintain a united front. However, that could change as the EU said it was ready to retaliate within days — if need be — against the sanctions if they affect European energy firms.

"If the US sanctions specifically disadvantage EU companies trading with Russia in the energy sector, EU is prepared to take appropriate steps in response within days," the commission said.

Bill will throw up complications

The signing of the bill is clearly not the last we've heard on the matter. The Trump administration is not happy with the bill and this could affect its functioning in a negative manner. Russia is incensed and will certainly react in due time, as will North Korea and Iran. Even the US' steadfast ally, the European Union, is not very comfortable with proceedings. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out in the coming months.

With inputs from AFP


Published Date: Aug 03, 2017 03:10 pm | Updated Date: Aug 03, 2017 03:10 pm


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