U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is calling on Congress to exempt some countries from being penalized by sanctions the United States is imposing on Russia's military.
In a statement released on July 20, Mattis said Russia should pay a price for its “aggressive, destabilizing behavior,” but the punishment shouldn’t apply to U.S. allies or other countries where Washington is cultivating ties.
Mattis' move comes amid growing concern about imposing sanctions on India and other Asian countries where Washington is trying to establish closer relations but which have a past history of purchasing arms from Russia.
India, in particular, is the world's top defense importer, and has purchased Russian military hardware and expertise for decades. Recently, it has been in talks with Moscow to buy S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems.
In a letter this week to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Mattis urged lawmakers who are currently drafting a massive defense policy bill to let the State Department waive sanctions if the United States "has a strategic interest in working with nations that are transitioning to closer ties with America but may still depend on Russian equipment."
“Russia should suffer consequences for its aggressive and destabilizing behavior as well as its continuing illegal occupation of Ukraine,” Mattis said in the letter.
But “as we impose necessary and well-justified costs on Russia for its malign behavior, at the same time there is a compelling need to avoid significant unintended damage to our long-term, national strategic interests,” he said.
Mattis's request comes as he and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are planning a visit to New Delhi for high-level talks in September.
But it also comes at a time when many lawmakers from both parties are calling for even tougher sanctions on Russia after President Donald Trump’s controversial summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week and in response to a recent indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents for allegedly hacking and releasing Democratic Party e-mails in an effort to sway the 2016 election in Trump's favor.
Retaliation against Russia for allegedly interfering in the U.S. election was a driving force behind the law imposing sanctions on Russia's military and intelligence agencies and industries, which was passed a year ago.
Mattis told the Senate committee in April that the sanctions law is “boxing us in” because “there are nations in the world who are trying to turn away from formerly Russian-sourced weapons and systems.”
"We only need to look at India, Vietnam, and some others to recognize that,” he said. “Eventually, we’re going to paralyze ourselves.”
Mattis said the question before Congress is whether Washington wants to strengthen "partners in key regions or leave them with no other option than to turn to Russia."
“Some nations who now actively seek a security relationship with the United States still rely on Russia for spare parts and other material needed to sustain” their equipment “during the transition period” to closer U.S. relations, he said.
“Without a national security waiver option, in the end we will pay a greater strategic price than Russia by pushing potential partners into deeper dependency on Russia,” he said.
Mattis warned that failing to grant the State Department the waiver authority risks “inadvertently giving Russia a significant strategic advantage” and places “undue burden on current and future allies and partners.”
The Pentagon chief wants Congress to include sanctions waiver authority in a massive defense bill being negotiated between the House and Senate. The State Department has not commented on Mattis' proposal.
Senator Richard Durbin, the Senate's No.2 Democrat, told Defense News that some House and Senate armed services committee members support Mattis' proposal and discussed it at a meeting this week in an effort to find a "middle ground."
"It's tricky. I don't know how it's going to be resolved," Durbin said.