Wednesday

23rd May 2018

Senate backs Russia sanctions, setting scene for EU clash

  • Bill passed by 98 to two votes, making a Trump veto unlikely (Photo: Eric B. Walker)

US senators have backed extra Russia sanctions, setting the scene for a clash with the EU and putting at risk a new gas pipeline.

The sanctions bill sailed through the Senate by 98 votes to two on Thursday (27 July) after having passed by 419 votes to three in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

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  • US sees Nord Stream II as a Russian tool to gain influence in Europe (Photo: Nord Stream 2 / Axel Schmidt)

It will become law when signed by US president Donald Trump.

A Trump spokesman told the CNN broadcaster this week that “he may veto the sanctions”, which come despite his overtures for better relations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

But senators said he would be unwise to do that because the whopping majority in Congress would see his veto overturned.

"It’s typically not good for presidents to veto something that can be overwhelmingly overridden,” Bob Corker, a Republican senator, told press.

Chuck Schumer, a Democratic senator, said a veto would also harm Trump’s image amid ongoing investigations into his alleged collusion with Russia to sway last year’s US election.

"If the president vetoes this bill, the American people will know that he is being soft on Putin, that he’s giving a free pass to a foreign adversary who violated the sanctity of our democracy," Schumer said.

The new sanctions could see US fines imposed on EU investors in Russian energy projects.

They also target Russian extraction of offshore gas in the High North, Russian arms exports, and Russian banks, as well as containing new measures on Iran and North Korea.

The threat of US fines could put at risk Russia's plan to build a new gas pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream II, which involves five Austrian, German, French, and Anglo-Dutch firms.

The investors - Engie, OMV, Shell, Uniper, and Wintershall - already threatened to walk away when a Polish anti-trust regulator raised objections to the project last year.

The Senate vote sets the scene for an unprecedented clash with the EU on Russia.

Germany and Austria have complained in strident terms that the US has no right to impose restrictions on their energy sectors.

The European Commission, which had earlier criticised Nord Stream II on grounds that it would increase EU dependence on Russia, has taken their side.

“If our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days,” Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker told press in Brussels on Wednesday.

“America first cannot mean that Europe's interests come last,” he added, referring to German complaints that the new sanctions were designed to help US firms sell liquid gas to Europe.

The Finnish president, Saul Niinisto, echoed those concerns at a meeting with Putin in Finland on Thursday.

He said there was “a very lively discussion” on the “not painless” issue in the EU because the “proposed sanctions have immediate consequences for other countries, not just for Russia”.

Putin, who was in Finland for a national anniversary, said: “We are behaving in a very restrained and patient way, but at some moment we will need to respond”.

He complained of US “insolence towards our country” and said the sanctions were “Russophobic instruments in the [US] domestic political struggle”.

Congress backed the new sanctions to punish Putin for interfering in last year’s election, but also to increase the cost of his covert military campaign in east Ukraine and to limit Russia's influence in Europe.

Pipeline politics

The US believes that Nord Stream II would give Moscow a bigger say in Berlin and would split the EU by ignoring the complaints of Poland, the Baltic states, and others who see the pipeline as a strategic threat.

Russia also stands accused of meddling in French elections earlier this year by hacking and leaking emails from the campaign team of Emmanuel Macron, who won the vote anyway.

An investigation by the Reuters news agency, published on Thursday, said Russian intelligence created bogus Facebook accounts to try to infiltrate Macron’s people via social media.

A previous Reuters investigation said Russia had broken EU sanctions on Crimea, a strip of Ukrainian territory which it annexed in 2014, by smuggling in electricity turbines made by German firm Siemens.

Reuters said EU ambassadors reached a “political understanding” in Brussels on Wednesday to add seven or so Russian individuals and firms to their blacklist in connection with the affair.

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