US House votes new sanctions on Russia, Iran, North Korea

Traditional Russian Matryoshka wooden dolls, also known as nesting dolls, illustrated with the images of US President Donald J. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a display at a gift shop in Moscow, Russia, 27 May 2017. [Maxim Shipenkov/EPA]

The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday (25 July) to impose tough new sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia, a move that will antagonise the Kremlin as well as European nations fearing economic ramifications.

In an apparent concession, the House modified a provision so the bill only targets pipelines originating in Russia, sparing those that merely pass through, such as the Caspian pipeline that carries oil from Kazakhstan to Europe.

The measure notably constrains President Donald Trump’s ability to waive the penalties.

The sanctions package, which passed 419 to three after weeks of negotiations, “tightens the screws on our most dangerous adversaries in order to keep Americans safe,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said after the vote.

The legislation is the result of a congressional compromise reached last weekend and is aimed at punishing the Kremlin for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has invaded its neighbour Ukraine, seizing its territory and destabilising its government,” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce said in applauding the passage.

“Left unchecked, Russia is sure to continue its aggression.”

But the bill could end up penalising European firms that contribute to the development of Russia’s energy sector.

From Paris to Berlin, the sanctions bill was seen as a unilateral action by Washington that disrupts a carefully crafted order.

EU sounds alarm, urges US to coordinate on Russia sanctions

The European Union sounded the alarm on Saturday (22 July) about moves in the US Congress to step up sanctions on Russia, urging Washington to keep coordinating with its G7 partners and warning of unintended consequences.

To date, sanctions against Moscow have been coordinated on both sides of the Atlantic, to maintain a united front.

European Union member states were due to meet on Wednesday and discuss the issue – and a possible response.

Several European nations, including Germany, are livid because the new law would allow punishing companies working on pipelines from Russia, for example by limiting their access to US banks.

Eight European projects to be hit by US sanctions on energy sector

Eight projects involving European companies could be affected by US sanctions if Congress passes a bill on Tuesday (25 July) to hit firms working with Russia in the energy sector.

The provision could theoretically pave the way for sanctions against European partners in Nord Stream 2, a project to build a pipeline carrying Russian gas across the Baltic that could boost supplies to Germany from 2019.

Nord Stream 2 will divide the EU, but new US sanctions will do more harm

Nord Stream 2 will increase Russia’s influence over its neighbours and divide the European Union. But US sanctions against the pipeline will do more harm than good.

To date, Washington and Brussels had agreed that sanctions would not affect Europe’s gas supply.

North Korea and Iran

New sanctions against Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which stands accused of supporting terrorism, and North Korea, for its missile tests, are also included in the bill.

Key among the provisions is one that handcuffs the US president by complicating any of the leader’s unilateral efforts to ease penalties against Moscow in the future – effectively placing him under Congress’s watch.

Trump has faced accusations that his administration had sought to reassure Moscow that sanctions imposed near the end of the Obama administration could be lifted under a President Trump.

Initially, Trump resisted the legislation. But faced with near-total consensus among Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the White House blinked, but did not say directly that the billionaire president would sign it into law.

“He’s going to study that legislation and see what the final product looks like,” spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Monday on Air Force One.

Veto effective?

In mid-June, the Senate voted 98-2 in favour of tough sanctions on Moscow and Tehran, but the text stalled in the House.

With the North Korea sanctions now included, the new measure would need to be passed by the Senate before heading to the president’s desk, likely before the summer break begins in mid-August.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said he wants the new measure passed and sent to Trump’s desk “without delay.”

US lawmakers, including Republican leaders, have remained wary of the intentions of the billionaire businessman-turned-president – who has called for better relations with Moscow – regarding a relaxation of pressure on Putin.

But even if Trump were to veto the legislation, Congress would likely be able to overcome such a blockage with a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

Counterproductive

The Kremlin warned that fresh sanctions on Russia would adversely affect both sides.

“We consider such a continuation of the rhetoric of sanctions counter-productive and harmful to the interests of both countries,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.

The measure now heads to the Senate, where there is support for sanctions but debate about whether to include penalties on North Korea.

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