On 13 January 2017, U.S. President Obama extended the national emergency with respect to the crisis in Ukraine until March 2018. The national emergency was imposed in March 2014 at the start of the Ukrainian territorial and constitutional crisis (e.g. sanctions against the Russian Federation based on the U.S.’s determination of Russia’s involvement in the annexation of the Crimea Region and Sevastopol).
President-Elect Trump has hinted that some of these sanctions could be uplifted, which has prompted the U.S. Congress to unveil the Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017. This bill, if adopted, might thwart the Trump Administration’ flexibility to relax relations with Russia. As we have seen with other U.S. sanctions regimes, especially in regard to Iran, this in effect would set in stone U.S. sanctions against Russia.
The extension of the national emergency by President Obama covers the following Executive Orders:
- Executive Order 13660, to deal with the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States constituted by the actions and policies of persons that undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threaten its peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and contribute to the misappropriation of its assets.
- Executive Order 13661, which expanded the scope of E.O. 13660, and found that the actions and policies of the Government of the Russian Federation with respect to Ukraine undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threaten its peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and contribute to the misappropriation of its assets.
- Executive Order 13662, which further expanded the scope of E.O.’s 13660 and 13661 and found that the actions and policies of the Government of the Russian Federation, including its purported annexation of Crimea and its use of force in Ukraine, continue to undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threaten its peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and contribute to the misappropriation of its assets.
- Executive Order 13685, to take additional steps to address the Russian occupation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.
On this point, President-Elect Trump has hinted that he’d be willing to relax U.S. sanctions in exchange for a further reduction in Russian nuclear stockpiles.
A possible relaxation of U.S. sanctions, which is currently firmly fixed to U.S. and EU demands that Russia comply with the Minsk Agreement, has prompted 10 U.S. senators, led by Republicans John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Democrat Ben Cardin, to introduce the bill “Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017.”
The act would aim to codify into statue existing U.S. Russia related sanctions adopted by President Obama and include new ones – related to Russia’s perceived involvement in the recent election hacking incident. The approach adopted is similar to the ISA, whereby the President has a pallet of sanctions to adopt with specific waivers. For instance, Section 207 aims to impose sanctions for oil and gas projects in Russia as low as $ 20 million.
The act will undoubtedly exert pressure on the Trump Administration how it moves on the issue of Russian sanctions. Whether the new President signs or veto’s the bill, it’s a sign to the world that U.S. Congress is not willing to give the incoming Administration a blank-cheque to uplift sanctions.
Positive, however, is that it also probably reinforces the current Western united front which demands Russian compliance with the Minsk Agreement. This may exert pressure on Russia to start implementing it’s obligations under the Minsk Agreement.
Negative is that the bill may result, if adopted and becomes U.S. law, that the uplifting of sanctions is held hostage to U.S. domestic turf wars between the U.S. Executive and U.S. Congress, which may not necessarily be in the interests of the rest of the world. A troubling effect of the act is to link a U.S. domestic issue, the cyber related sanctions (hacking of U.S. elections) with a regional or even international security issue- i.e. territorial threats to the sovereignty of the Ukraine and its geostrategic implications for U.S. (NATO/EU) and Russia relations.
A solution in one issue does not have to be a solution for the other.