After the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to implement new sanctions against Russia over "interference in the 2016 U.S. elections" and curbs President Trump’s power to ease penalties against Moscow in the future - without consultations with US allies in Europe - President Trump has found himself cornered in what appears to be a lose-lose position.
On one hand, the bill prompted an unexpectedly angry response by Germany and Austria, both of whom who have invested hundreds of millions into the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would pump Russian gas to Germany beneath the Baltic Sea, and who said the bill is trying to help American natural gas suppliers at the expense of their Russian rivals. On Friday, Germany went so far as saying the bill "must not happen" with German Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries saying "Berlin would have to think about counter-measures" if Trump - or the House - backed the plan. "If he does, we'll have to consider what we are going to do against it."
Nord Stream 2
Even the EU slammed the Senate's passage of the bill. According to Reuters, some European diplomats said they fear the threat of new measures out of Washington may harden Germany's defense of Nord Stream and complicate already difficult talks among EU nations over whether to seek joint talks with Russia over the pipeline. "This is not helpful now. It tends to stir up desires to protect our territorial space," one EU diplomat said.
On the other hand, any attempt by Trump to prevent the bill from passing - despite the outcry of America's closest allies in Europe - would be immediately seen as a further attempt by Trump to cede to his "Russian spy masters" and be immediately spun by the "objective" press as confirmation of leverage the Kremlin has over the president, who is already neck deep in allegations he has colluded with Russia.
In other words, the outcome of the new Russian sanctions would force Trump in a position of choosing between an escalation of domestic attacks over his "allegiance" to Russia, or burning even more bridges with European allies such as Germany, Austria, France and other nations invested in Nord Stream 2, who have warned the US not to proceed with the sanctions.
On Saturday, it appeared that Trump appears to have chosen the latter option, because the "White House is expected to push House Republicans to change the Senate’s Russia sanctions bill to make it more friendly to Russia."
According to Politico, a senior administration official said that the White House is concerned that the bill will hurt U.S.-Russia relations and the administration is hoping to work with Republicans in the House to soften the bill. Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown told Politico that he has heard the Trump administration is asking House members to “slow and block” the legislation. “This is not something the administration is calling for us to do,” Brown said of the stronger sanctions, adding that he applauds "the courage of a number of my Republican colleagues who said no to the administration and did the right thing for the country to keep a foreign power out of our elections.”
Other democrats similarly chimed in: “I’m concerned about it, but I don’t really have the ability to dictate what the White House says to the House,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in an interview. “I can’t imagine the House would want to be apologists for Russian behavior after the combined weight of the intelligence communities all weighing in saying, ‘Look, they attacked the United States’.” Rep. Krysten Sinema responded to the report in a tweet Saturday, urging the U.S. to hold Russia accountable with “strong sanctions.”
Russia seeks to undermine American democracy. We must hold them accountable with strong sanctions. https://t.co/wHB3l18q1H— Kyrsten Sinema (@RepSinema) June 17, 2017
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to express concern about the bill this week in a House Foreign Affairs hearing. "I would urge Congress to ensure any legislation allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions," he told lawmakers. Of course, Tillerson too is in the media's "pro-Russia" cross hairs, due to his friendly relationship with Putin during his tenure as Exxon CEO, and he knows it: should he push too hard to preserve relations with Russia - and Europe - on the level, a "Tillerson dossier" may just emerge next.
According to Politico, it’s so far unclear how the House GOP would receive any White House "entreaties to restore some of Trump’s power over sanctions that the Senate voted to claw back. House Republicans have started to review the Senate-passed bill and are likely to take it up in the coming weeks, according to an aide."
Sadly, the Politico article does not mention a key part of the story, namely the broad European outcry at the Senate's bill, a "minor detail" which has broad implications for US foreign policy, and which could quickly spill over into domestic politics. After all, should Europe burn bridges with the US and "retaliate" this time over an act of Senate which the White House was against, it will be used by the press to exhibit how clueless Trump's foreign policy is, even though the president was effectively entrapped by both Senate Democrats and Republicans into the current situation.
Of course, should Trump veto the vote, he will never hear the end of it.
A lose-lose situation.
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Meanwhile, on Saturday, Russia's state news agency RIA reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that the new sanctions under consideration would damage relations between the two countries, but it was too early to talk about retaliation. "This will, indeed, complicate Russia-American relations. I think this is harmful," Putin said according to Reuters adding he needed to see how the situation with sanctions evolved.
"That is why it is premature to speak publicly about our retaliatory actions," RIA quoted him as saying. Putin also said that Russia would be forced to make changes because of the sanctions, but they wouldn't lead to a "collapse."
Putin previously dismissed the proposed sanctions, saying they reflected an internal political struggle in the United States, and that Washington had always used such methods as a means of trying to contain Russia. Which, ironically, was a far more calm response than the one offered by US allies such as Germany who have made it clear in no uncertain terms that should the bill in its current format pass, they would retaliate.