- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2022

A showdown looms this week over sweeping sanctions against Russia on Capitol Hill as the Biden administration and its NATO allies labored to head off a threatened Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

The Democrat-run House is expected to open debate on a sanctions bill, and lawmakers remain largely united on the need to signal U.S. resolve as the world awaits President Biden‘s next move while the Kremlin shows no sign of withdrawing roughly 100,000 troops massed on its border with Ukraine.

“I would describe it as we are on the one-yard line and hopefully we will be able to conclude successfully,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “There is an incredible bipartisan resolve for support of Ukraine and an incredibly strong bipartisan resolve to have severe consequences for Russia if it invades Ukraine and for some cases what it has already done.” 

But fissures remain in Congress within and between the two parties on the scope and timing of the sanctions, and all sides worry that any missteps could exacerbate the volatile situation in Eastern Europe.

Republicans fear the Democrats’ bill, which Mr. Menendez has dubbed the “mother of all sanctions bill,” is too weak with too many loopholes and too many waivers that the Kremlin can exploit.

On the diplomatic front, U.S. U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Russia should expect sharp questioning about its intentions at a Security Council meeting on the crisis Monday, though as a veto-wielding member of the Council, Moscow can easily block any actions against it.

“Our voices are unified in calling for the Russians to explain themselves,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We’re going into the room prepared to listen to them, but we’re not going to be distracted by their propaganda.”

Russian officials for their part continued to employ a good cop-bad cop style of diplomacy, insisting that NATO agree to a broad rewrite of security policy in Ukraine and Eastern Europe on the Kremlin’s terms while denying a recent massive build-up of forces and weaponry on Ukraine‘s border was the prelude to an invasion.

“They’re saying that Russia threatens Ukraine — that’s completely ridiculous,” Russian National Security Council chief Nikola Patrushev told the TASS news agency. “We don’t want war and we don’t need it at all.”

The starting point for the congressional debate is a bill put forward earlier this month by Mr. Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, as an alternative to a Senate GOP measure that would have immediately reimposed Trump-era sanctions on the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline project — sanctions that Mr. Biden waived last year.

Critics contend that the natural gas pipeline will increase Moscow’s dominance over European energy markets and put Germany and other countries at risk of energy extortion.

Sen. James E. Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said that Russia’s aggression in recent days might have changed the calculus. 

“We’ve had a disagreement on that since the administration took office,” said Mr. Risch. “But look, there’s been something that’s happened on the ground that has changed the dynamics and opened the door, really, for us to reach an agreement.” 

It remains to be seen whether Congress will rise to the occasion, however. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, secured the vote to reimpose the sanctions in exchange for lifting his hold on key Biden nominees.

The White House lobbied against the move, arguing that it would take a key bargaining chip off of the table just as high-stakes negotiations with the Kremlin were starting.

Scrambling for an alternative

Democrats scrambled to offer an alternative bill for members of their party to remain tough on Russia without embarrassing the administration.

And just days before the vote on immediate Nord Stream 2 sanctions, Mr. Menendez put forward his bill which includes a bevy of threats against Russia Should they invade. It would then impose mandatory sanctions against Russian officials and financial institutions as well as measures to bolster Ukrainian defense forces.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Gregory W. Meeks introduced a nearly identical version in the House last week.

Democrats say the bill makes clear that “any activities constituting an invasion by the Russian army into sovereign territory will be met with significant repercussions.”

“This legislation would impose significant consequences on Russia, both financially and otherwise, and Congress stands ready to act should [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin continue to pursue its provocative military buildup on Ukraine’s borders,” said Mr. Meeks, New York Democrat.

Republicans said it is too little, too late, and the Democrats’ bill would do more to appease Mr. Putin than it would deter him from invading Ukraine.

The bill stops short of Republican proposals to enact immediate sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and instead expresses a “sense of Congress that Nord Stream 2 is a tool of the malign influence of the Russian Federation.”

It directs the Biden administration to “consider all available and appropriate measures to prevent the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from becoming operational,” and “to review its prior waiver of Nord Stream 2 in light of the Kremlin’s military buildup and aggression of Ukraine.”

“If that’s the conversation we have when Russia is marching across Ukraine, I think that Vladimir Putin and Russia are going to be thrilled that that’s our conversation,” said Rep. Scott Perry, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. “Because while we’re gonna be talking about Nord Stream, and a waiver and potential sanctions, they’re going to be gobbling up territory.”

“I think it has no deterring effect whatsoever as a matter of fact, that might have the opposite effect of encouraging Putin by signaling even more weakness than we’ve already telegraphed,” he said.

In addition to sanctions on the pipeline, Mr. Meeks’ bill also proposes sanctions for Russian officials and certain financial institutions but leaves it to the President to determine whether sanctions are warranted.

It is a paper tiger, Republicans said.

“These are sanctions … Republicans have been calling for, for years,” a Republican aide said. “But the thing is, they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on because the waiver authority given to the president makes them completely discretionary. That’s why Biden is dying to have something like this come in desk because he can pretend that it does something while everyone knows that basically, this could possibly never go into effect, quite literally.”

Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, has introduced a competing measure that would impose immediate sanctions on the Kremlin and go so far as to designate the Russian Federation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

“The real Russian collusion has always been between the Democrats and Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Banks said. “No president has done more to appease Russia’s dictator than Joe Biden. That’s why conservatives at the Republican Study Committee introduced this bill to hold both Biden and Putin accountable.” 

Mr. Banks’ measure currently has 38 Republican co-sponsors.

Mr. Meeks’ bill currently has 13 co-sponsors, all Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled that she expects to bring the bill to the floor as soon as next week.

Democratic leaders also must persuade the party’s far-left wing to get the legislation through the House.

Progressive Democrats are raising concerns that saber-rattling in Congress will get in the way of de-escalation. They are also raising alarms about the U.S.’ lethal aid packages for Ukraine — a key component of Mr. Meeks’ bill.

“We have significant concerns that new troop deployments, sweeping and indiscriminate sanctions, and a flood of hundreds of millions of dollars in lethal weapons will only raise tensions and increase the chance of miscalculation,” said Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Pramila Jayapal of Washington. “Russia’s strategy is to inflame tensions; the United States and NATO must not play into this strategy.”

— David R. Sands contributed to this report.

• Haris Alic can be reached at halic@washingtontimes.com.

• Joseph Clark can be reached at jclark@washingtontimes.com.

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