The announcement of new US sanctions against Russia paves the way for a potential showdown between Congress and Donald Trump’s incoming administration over what kind of stance Washington should take against the country in the future.
Mr Trump has called for closer ties with Moscow and played down its role in the Ukrainian conflict. But he is likely to face fierce resistance from a bipartisan coalition in Congress who have promised even tougher measures against Russia next year, with or without the president-elect’s approval.
Republican senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio have vowed to push for harsher measures against Russia, saying that the new Obama sanctions do not go far enough. More than 20 senators of both parties have signed an open letter to Mr Trump urging him to provide more support to Ukraine and keep the existing sanctions against Russia in place once he takes office.
While those sanctions were signed by executive order and could be reversed by Mr Trump with the stroke of a pen, many in Congress believe that there is a large-enough coalition of Senate Democrats and Republicans who would oppose such a course.
“I think there will be a confrontation at some point unless Trump changes course,” said a Republican Senate aide who was not authorised to speak publicly. “The administration will have to decide whether to go along with [the Senate’s Russia] efforts or to fight them.”
Earlier this month, Mr Rubio and Democratic Senator Bob Casey introduced a bipartisan bill that would mandate sanctions against any Russian or Iranian official who threatened the stability of Iraq or Syria.
Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he plans to introduce two new Russia-related bills next month. One would call for the creation of an independent, non-partisan commission to investigate Russia’s role in the election. The other would demand more sanctions in the wake of the cyber attacks and call for the US to give additional resources to democratic institutions in Europe.
Political analysts said the new sanctions appeared designed to push Mr Trump into a corner over Washington’s future relationship with Moscow, making him look soft if he were he to immediately drop the sanctions against Russian intelligence agencies after taking office.
Mr Trump has repeatedly said that it is time for the US to “move on” from its investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails and the emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in the 2016 election.
Yet on Thursday, Mr Trump opened up the possibility that he could potentially reverse course on the cyber attacks, saying that he would meet with US intelligence officials next week and then take a view on whether Russia was behind them.
The administration will have to decide whether to go along with [the Senate’s Russia] efforts or to fight them
“[With the sanctions] the Obama administration is targeting two key audiences: Russian President Putin and President-elect Trump,” said Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “With the former the message is that we are going to name and shame you for your brazen meddling in a US presidential election. With Trump, the Obama team clearly is trying to make it harder for him to persist in his bizarre denials of Russian malfeasance while raising the potential political costs of trying to resume business as usual with Putin after January 20.”
While the sanctions were designed to hurt Russia, their greater purpose was to prove to the American people that the Kremlin was behind the attacks — and force Mr Trump to acknowledge it too, said Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow and a professor at Stanford University.
“[Until Thursday] millions of Americans still didn’t believe that the Russians did anything in our election, including maybe the president-elect. And I think [Thursday’s] action ended that debate,” he said.
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