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U.S. Senate Committee Advances Bill On Russian Propaganda, Election Meddling

Senators Ben Cardin (left) and John McCain have been pushing efforts to impose new economic sanctions on Moscow. (composite file photo)
Senators Ben Cardin (left) and John McCain have been pushing efforts to impose new economic sanctions on Moscow. (composite file photo)

WASHINGTON -- A key U.S. Senate committee has moved forward on new legislation aimed at countering Russian propaganda and election meddling in the United States and elsewhere.

The bill, passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 25, is one of several Russia-targeted measures now circulating in Congress, reflecting the general attitude among many U.S. lawmakers toward Moscow.

President Donald Trump's administration has sent mixed signals about its approach to the Kremlin. Trump's conciliatory remarks have also worried lawmakers that he might try to lift the sanctions imposed by Barack Obama's administration following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Still, a growing number of Republicans and Democrats have sought to push back on everything from Russia's alleged interference in last year's presidential election to Moscow's actions in Ukraine and Syria.

Several Russia "hawks" in the Senate are seeking to keep existing sanctions from being lifted without congressional approval. Others, including John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland), have pushed efforts to impose new economic sanctions on Moscow.

New Sanctions?

The push for new sanctions has been slowed in part by the position of the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee).

Corker said earlier this month he wanted to wait on new sanctions until the Senate Intelligence Committee completed its investigation into Russia's alleged interference in last year's election. He's also said he wanted to see if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could reach some agreement with Moscow on front-burner issues like Ukraine.

The bill that passed the committee on May 25 — called the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act of 2017 — seeks to strengthen cybersecurity, fight corruption, and bolster democracy-building efforts, among other things.

When and if it gets taken up by the full Senate will depend on the chamber's majority leader, Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky).

In a statement, Cardin, who is the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and co-sponsor of this and other similar measures, suggested that the push for new sanctions continued and the committee would seek testimony directly from Tillerson by early June.

"Every day of inaction on our part is one where Russia continues to gain ground," he said.

$100 Million Effort

Earlier this month, Congress signed off on a new $100 million effort to counter "Russian influence and aggression" and to support civil society organizations in Europe and Eurasia.

That measure was included in the $1.1 trillion budget to fund the federal government for 2017.

Lawmakers also imposed new restrictions and oversight on Russian diplomats in the United States -- a measure that Moscow had angrily warned Washington against.

And this week, Representative Salud Carbajal (Democrat-California) introduced legislation requiring the State Department to report to Congress on the methods Kremlin is using to "achieve [its] goal of destabilizing foreign democracies."

That drew a biting rebuke from the editor in chief of the Russian government-funded TV network RT, who said she had lost count of the number of bills aiming to "limit, forbid, and suppress" the network.

"They have not suggested to arrest us yet, but I think it won't be long," Margarita Simonyan said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, Trump's top economic adviser told reporters during a summit of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations in Sicily that the White House had no intention of easing sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine.

"We are not lowering our sanctions on Russia," Gary Cohn said. "If anything, we would probably look to get tougher on Russia."

With reporting by AFP
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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