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As bipartisan talks stall, GOP goes it alone on Russia sanctions

Voting on a partisan measure 'just elevates the division,' Democratic aide says

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint news conference with Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz following their talks about the Ukraine crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint news conference with Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz following their talks about the Ukraine crisis. (Sergei Guneyev/POOL/TASS/Getty Images)

Senate Republicans on Tuesday released their own legislation that would impose immediate sanctions on Russia for its pattern of malign behavior, the latest sign that talks with Democrats on a compromise agreement meant to deter Moscow from invading Ukraine are foundering.

The Republican measure principally differs from a Democratic-led proposal in its inclusion of mandatory sanctions — to be imposed within one month after bill enactment — meant to punish senior Russian officials for activities already taken against Ukraine. Democrats favor holding them back as a deterrent to help stop an invasion.

The GOP bill also includes secondary sanctions on Russian banks that would be imposed if Moscow further attacks Ukraine. Negotiators had previously said those proposed penalties were one of the last remaining differences standing in the way of a bipartisan agreement, which now seems unlikely.

Democrats are seen as more leery about using secondary sanctions to essentially force European countries, which have much greater financial exposure to sanctions on Russia than does the U.S., to choose between maintaining their relationship with the American financial system or some of Russia’s biggest banks.

“While a ‘military’ invasion has not yet occurred, there are other ways Russia can attack Ukraine that would be debilitating for Ukrainians and European security more generally,” Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement. “Rather than simply restating authorities the president already has, the NYET [Never Yielding Europe’s Territory] Act takes immediate action to permanently stop Nord Stream 2, sends a powerful deterrent message [and] imposes heavy economic and military costs on Russia.”

It isn’t yet clear if Risch intends the release of his bill, which has 31 GOP co-sponsors, to help his negotiating hand in talks with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez by publicizing the areas on which they disagree — or if the Idaho senator is walking away from the bipartisan talks.

On Monday, Menendez told reporters he had just responded to Risch with a sanctions counteroffer “on several elements we think goes further in their direction.”

“Hopefully, they’ll take yes for an answer,” the New Jersey Democrat added.

But Menendez castigated Republicans on Tuesday for opting for “partisan posturing” by releasing their bill rather than working to close the final few yards in reaching a bipartisan sanctions agreement with Democrats.

“The latest proposal by Republicans is largely a reflection of what Democrats had already agreed to in our ongoing conversations, building off of the ‘mother of all sanctions’ we initially proposed,” Menendez said, referring to his own bill, which has the support of the Biden administration and most of his caucus.

‘Elevates the division’

President Joe Biden, speaking Tuesday afternoon from the White House, said U.S. officials have yet to verify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he is ordering troops to pull back from the area near the Ukraine border. Biden upped the estimated Russian troop presence around three sides of Ukraine to 150,000.

A Russian “invasion remains distinctly possible,” Biden said, also warning fuel prices in the United States would almost inevitably climb should Putin give the invasion order.

With reports surfacing late last week that Putin could order a new invasion of Ukraine as soon as Wednesday, lawmakers are on the verge of dealing themselves out of any chance of influencing his decision-making by ordering deterrent sanctions on the Russian economy that would be harsher and more inflexible than those the Biden administration has indicated it is ready to impose after Russian troops cross the border.

“The United States and our allies and partners around the world are ready to impose powerful sanctions on export controls including actions that did not, we did not pursue when Russia invaded Crimea,” Biden said before issuing this warning: “These measures are ready to go as soon as and if Russia moves.”

However, the White House has been rhetorically supportive of Congress passing a new Russia sanctions bill, calling it a move that would strengthen U.S. diplomatic efforts with Moscow by showing how united Congress is against any new Kremlin aggression. But if Republicans and Democrats are unable to overcome their differences, they risk sending the opposite message of unity to the Kremlin.

“If there is going to be only a Republican-only proposal or a Democrat-only proposal, what would we gain from forcing a vote on either of those? It just elevates the division, which is completely counterproductive to the ultimate message that we are trying to send,” said a Democratic Senate staffer, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the impasse. “A partisan victory is not worth it if you are sending a divisive message.”

The Risch-crafted legislation goes further than the bill from Menendez in ordering immediate sanctions on foreign individuals involved in the finalization of the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, but then allowing those sanctions to be suspended if Berlin holds off on completing the certification process of the project.

The 99-page measure is a counterpart of what was released in the House on Tuesday by the top Republicans of that chamber’s national security committees. Both would also go further than Democrats’ proposals by requiring the imposition of a slew of sanctions within one month after enactment — asset freezes on top Russian military officials and other individuals involved in a range of ongoing destabilizing activities inside Ukraine.

The GOP bill would also sanction Promsvyazbank, which the Russian government uses for defense sector transactions, if the Biden administration determines the state-owned bank has facilitated transactions for Russian military forces involved in the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula or other activities aimed at undermining the former Soviet republic’s territorial integrity.

‘Emboldens Putin’

The legislation would require sanctions within one month on at least 15 senior Russian military officials who have played leading roles in the buildup of forces since fall 2021 along Ukraine’s borders, in ongoing military operations in eastern Ukraine’s contested Donbas region, or in Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.

And it would order sanctions on at least five foreign individuals previously determined by the U.S. government under a 2017 sanctions law to play major roles in Russia’s military and intelligence sectors.

Additionally, Republicans would order sanctions within one month on at least 15 “foreign persons” determined by the Biden administration to have worked at the Kremlin’s direction since last October “to destabilize Ukraine,” or to have conducted malicious cyber operations against Ukrainian government websites, utilities and other critical infrastructure.

“Each day without the passage of this sanctions package only emboldens Putin at the expense of global democracy and American credibility,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik of New York, a co-sponsor of the House bill, said in a statement. “This legislation sends an unmistakable message to Putin: the United States will cripple the Russian economy in the event of an invasion.”

And if Russia further attacks Ukraine, including through “offensive cyber operations” in such a way as to interfere “with the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the Republican bill would impose sanctions on Russia’s VTB Bank, state development corporation VEB.RF, the Russian Direct Investment Fund and Alfa Bank. The legislation would further order sanctions on at least four even larger Russian banks that are drawn from a list that includes Sberbank and Gazprombank.

Republicans would require secondary sanctions be imposed on any “foreign financial institution” that “knowingly engages in a significant financial transaction” with any of the Russian banks sanctioned as a result of the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine.

Additionally, if Russia attacks, the legislation would waive the suspension of sanctions on foreign individuals helping to finalize work on Nord Stream 2 and would order personal sanctions on Putin, the top-ranking ministers in his cabinet, senior leaders of his armed forces as well as at least 15 previously identified oligarchs with close ties to Putin.

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