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U.S. Senate Advances New Russia Sanctions Amid Moscow Threats, White House Caution

Ahead of the vote on June 14, U.S. Senator John McCain criticized the Kremlin for what he called a "brazen attack on our democracy." (file photo)
Ahead of the vote on June 14, U.S. Senator John McCain criticized the Kremlin for what he called a "brazen attack on our democracy." (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to cement existing economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, and to impose new ones in response to Moscow's alleged meddling in last year's U.S. election campaign.

The sanctions bill passed the upper chamber of Congress on June 14 by a vote of 97-2. It came just hours after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a plea for patience from lawmakers, saying the administration feared being "handcuffed" by the new measure.

But the amendment had strong bipartisan support, reflecting the growing consensus in Washington that Russia had to be punished for allegedly meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, its actions in Ukraine, and other areas.

President Vladimir Putin's "brazen attack on our democracy is a flagrant demonstration of his disdain and disrespect for our nation," John McCain, an outspoken Republican senator and critic of the Kremlin, said ahead of the vote.

The legislation, and its wide backing from both Republicans and Democrats, is a challenge to President Donald Trump who has repeatedly voiced support for a more cooperative, or even pragmatic, approach to Russia.

Trump also faces deepening suspicions about interactions between his associates and Russian officials, particularly during last year's election campaign. He has denied any wrongdoing, but two congressional committees are currently investigating those ties. The FBI, and now a special Justice Department counsel, are also conducting probes.

The Russia amendment passed as part of a larger measure that targets Iran for sanctions, over its ballistic missile program, human right violations, and other issues. The overall legislation must now be voted on by the Senate, which could come as early as June 15.

Ryan's Backing

The bill would then go the House of Representatives, where support for punitive actions against Russia is less strong. The Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has signaled backing for it, however.

The amendment would turn into law existing sanctions over Moscow's aggression in Ukraine, making it harder for Trump to lift them unilaterally.

They would also hit Russians accused of human rights abuses, and sanction Russian mining, metals, shipping, and railways companies, going beyond the energy and financial firms previously targeted.

Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, said the measure was a message to Putin, saying "you will be held accountable for interference in our elections."

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (file photo)
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (file photo)

The sanctions imposed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, late last year were specifically in response to U.S. intelligence conclusions that Moscow sought to sway the presidential election in favor of Trump, to the detriment of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

Those measures expelled nearly three dozen Russian diplomats and ordered the seizure of two Russian government properties in Maryland and New York state, which law enforcement suspected of being used for intelligence gathering.

But the Kremlin did not respond with the usual tit-for-tat response. Along with Trump’s conciliatory approach, the Kremlin sent messages that suggested it was hoping for some sort of sanctions relief.

Russian Retaliation?

In recent weeks, however, as it became clear the White House was not moving to lift existing sanctions, and as Congress moved to impose new ones, Moscow's tone has sharpened. Last week, Russian officials threatened retaliatory measures, including seizing a U.S. Embassy property in western Moscow.

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin to the Senate vote, though one lawmaker whose comments typically echo those of the Kremlin criticized the measure.

"The Senate's current stance is appropriate neither to the situation in the world,nor to the state in bilateral relations with Russia," Konstantin Kosachyov, a member of the upper chamber of Russia's parliament, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (file photo)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (file photo)

During his appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier June 14, Tillerson agreed with lawmakers who said Russia should be held accountable for its actions in last year's U.S. presidential election.

However, he said, "I would urge...allowing the president the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the need in what is always an evolving diplomatic situation."

He said the administration needed "the ability to turn the heat up but also maintain the ability to have a constructive dialogue" with Moscow.

Tillerson said he accepted the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community about the interference, and said he has raised the issue directly with Russian officials.

“We have registered our complaint about that, and that it is going to be a constant obstacle to our ability to improve our relationship if they do not address it,” he said.

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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.