A Heavy Lift
No Sanctions Relief in Sight for Russia

Russia may be waiting quite a while for sanctions relief, if the U.S. Senate has anything to say about it. Reuters:

The top Republican and Democrat on the U.S. Senate Banking Committee both said on Wednesday that sanctions imposed on Russia over its involvement in Ukraine must not be lifted without drastic changes by Russia.

Senator Mike Crapo, the panel’s Republican chairman, said reducing sanctions could encourage Moscow to continue aggressive actions, three years after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Senator Sherrod Brown, the ranking Democrat, said the panel should look at increasing sanctions. […]

“We should strengthen, not weaken, Russian sanctions, and the president must work with Congress on a Russia policy that is clear-eyed about our adversaries and their behavior,” Brown said in his opening statement at the hearing.

Anyone still anticipating a speedy end to the Russian sanctions regime must face up to the political realities on display here: there is currently no appetite for sanctions relief on either side of the aisle, and each party can make the argument for sanctions in a way that’s politically self-serving.

For Democrats, the sanctions debate is a chance to defend an Obama policy, play up the politically damaging allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia, and amplify fears that he would roll back sanctions. Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the Senate’s most high-profile Democrats, argued exactly along these lines during Wednesday’s hearing, concluding with a call for legislation providing Congressional oversight of any White House attempt to roll back sanctions.

For Republicans—traditionally the more hawkish party on Moscow—the sanctions debate allows an opportunity to criticize Obama’s sanctions for failing to deter Putin’s behavior, while pushing a more aggressive approach. Republican Senators John Kennedy and Ben Sasse, for example, both argued on Wednesday that the U.S. should explore additional sanctions directly targeting the illicit assets of Putin and top Kremlin cronies.

This is hardly the situation Russians lawmakers anticipated as they cheered Trump’s election from the floor of the State Duma. And despite a concerted effort by the Russia lobby to sway Congress toward a more friendly stance, the opposite seems to be happening, with the Trump-Russia controversy only deepening skepticism about a reset on Capitol Hill. Even if Trump wanted to pursue far-reaching rapprochement with Moscow—a questionable assumption, given his early actions—the current word from the Hill suggests he will have his hands tied.

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