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Senate Panel Passes Bill To Impose Sanctions On Turkey, Delays Vote On Tough Russia Measures

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A combination photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate committee has passed legislation with bipartisan support to hit Turkey with sanctions but refrained from voting on a controversial Russian sanctions bill.

It also approved legislation to help finance energy projects in Central and Eastern Europe with the goal of reducing the region's dependence on Moscow and a bill that would require the Secretary of State to determine whether Russia should be labeled a state sponsor of terrorism.

The votes come a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Washington with President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the latter of whom said following his talks with Lavrov that he hoped to soon announce "significant progress" on economic relations with Moscow.

Trump, who has shown affinity for both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has sought to delay imposing sanctions against their countries.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved on December 11 a bill that imposes sanctions on fellow NATO-ally Turkey for its invasion of Syria and purchase of Russia’s S-400 antiaircraft defense system.

"Turkey’s actions over the past year are truly beyond the pale. This bill makes clear to Turkey that its behavior with respect to Syria is unacceptable, and its purchase of the S-400 system is untenable," Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), the leading minority member on the committee, said in a tweet following the vote.

The measures would be applied -- among other people and entities -- to key individuals in the government, including the defense and finance ministers, as well as state-owned Halk Bank, one of the nation's largest lenders.

The bill -- known as Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act -- would also impose sanctions on Russian individuals helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad acquire weapons and defense services.

Russia has been a key supporter of Assad, whom the United States has sought to remove from power, throughout the years-long conflict in Syria.

The bill, which passed with a vote of 18 to 4, must still be brought to the Senate floor for a full vote and be signed by the president before it can become law.

A similar bill has already been passed by the House of Representatives.

The Senate committee delayed a vote on a bill to impose sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine and interference in democratic elections.

The Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act -- described by Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) as the "sanctions bill from hell" -- targets Russian banks that support the Kremlin’s efforts to "undermine democratic institutions in other countries," Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects in other countries, and the nation's cybersector, among other things.

Russian Pipeline Sanctions

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also passed a bill that requires the secretary of state to submit a strategy to Congress to enhance the energy independence of NATO allies and increase U.S. energy exports to such countries as well as Japan.

"Russia continues to use its energy resources as a weapon to intimidate, influence and coerce our allies. Freeing Europe from Russian energy dependence will strengthen both our allies and our NATO alliance," Senator John Barrasso (Republican-Wyoming), who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement.

U.S. natural gas production has been surging over the past few years, enabling the United States to begin exporting gas to Europe and Asia for the first time.

The bill -- known as Energy Security Cooperation with Allied Partners in Europe Act -- initially included a provision to sanction persons or entities helping Russia build energy export pipelines, such as Nord Stream 2 and Turkstream.

That provision was removed after a similar bill to sanction vessels helping to build energy pipelines was included on December 9 in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The NDAA is expected to pass this month.

Russia has already completed the Turkstream pipeline to Turkey that runs under the Black Sea. Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas company, is expected to begin deliveries through Turksteam in the coming weeks. The pipeline has a capacity of 15.75 billion cubic meters (bcm) a year.

Russia has completed all but a small section of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline along the Baltic Sea floor to Germany. The $11-billion pipeline with an annual capacity of 55 bcm is expected to begin transporting gas early next year. The sanctions threaten to hold up its completion.

European Energy Diversification

The Senate committee also approved a bill that would set aside $1 billion to encourage the development of energy infrastructure projects in Central and Eastern Europe to reduce their dependence on Russian supplies.

Hungary and other countries in the region still receive most or all of their imported gas from Russia due to a lack of pipelines connecting countries in the region, a legacy of communist rule. The region also lacks LNG terminals that could import gas to the continent from the Middle East or the United States.

The European Energy Security and Diversification Act, as the bill is called, would make financing available for projects that improve the capacity to transfer gas and electricity within and between European countries -- such as LNG terminals and pipeline interconnectors -- that are deemed important for energy security.

"This is a piece of legislation that seeks to redress what has been an asymmetry in the way in which we try to combat Russia's attempts to curry favor in the region with its oil and gas. This is I think, a compliment in many ways to Senator Barrasso's legislation, which I am glad passed," said Senator Murphy (Democrat-Connecticut), who sponsored the bill.

The Senate also passed a bill that would require the Secretary of State to determine whether Russia should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism and whether Russian-backed entities in Ukraine should be designated as foreign terrorist organizations.

During a Senate hearing on December 3 on U.S. policy toward Russia, Undersecretary of State David Hale said he considers Russia's behavior "malign" but did not see it as a state sponsor of terrorism.

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