A shifting balance of power in Congress toward the Democrats will bring a more hawkish approach to US-Russia relations, with a doubling down on tough sanctions.
The US midterm elections on November 6 were a partial victory for the Democratic Party. Partial because the Republican Party managed to hold on to a majority in the Senate. But the key change is the Democrats have won a majority in the House of Representatives. This is a rare occurrence in the post Cold War era. The Republicans have controlled the House for 20 of the last 24 years. Does a House led by Democrats herald any key changes in the tenor of US-Russia relations?
Without doubt, Democrats displayed a hawkish attitude toward Russia on the campaign trail. The party has indicated it will launch new Congressional investigations into potential collusion between Donald Trump and Russian figures during the 2016 presidential elections. Yet the continued Republican control of the Senate will be a significant obstacle in this regard. Partisan rivalry will continue to slow all manner of legislation. Even so, Russia policy is likely to be a hotbed of activity.
The House’s ability to impact US foreign policy has its limits. After all, the Senate still plays a larger role with a remit that includes approving treaties, ambassadors and appointments to the Cabinet. Legislation must pass both the House and the Senate to become law. And the Senate remains in Republican hands. Despite this, the Democrats’ upcoming control of the House of Representatives is likely to have a key impact on Russia policy. Even just the prospect of a Democratic House will spur changes. Congress can still vote through legislation before the new Congress is seated on 3 January next year.
Hawks and Sanctions
Many extensive sanctions bills are already under consideration of the current Congress. Among them, the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKAA). There is also the inventively-named Defending Elections against Trolls from Enemy Regimes Act (DETER).
Were either DASKAA or the DETER Act to pass, they would mark the most strident sanctions on Russia to date. The former, dubbed the ‘bill from hell’ would bar Russia from issuing debt abroad. Non-American persons and businesses could still hold Russian debt. But America’s centrality in the global financial system would effectively bar them from being held by most non-Russian entities. This includes the bond indexes that play a major role in the flow of capital to emerging markets. The DETER Act would sting as well. It would sanction all Russia’s major banks, as well as crank up sanctions on Gazprom and Rosneft. Lukoil, which is not state owned and which has been hitherto unscathed, would also get hit under this legislation.
Both DETER and the DASKAA act were introduced with Democratic and Republican sponsors. Although some leading US Senators indicated to Bloomberg they may not seek to take up the bills before 2019, much could still change.
After all, Republican Congressmen are under pressure. The midterms saw Democrats take 8% more votes nationwide. That was with the percentage of eligible voters taking part in a mid-term election reaching a 104-year high. Meanwhile Trump continues to criticize the US’ traditional allies and to sporadically – albeit less frequently than in previous years – call for better relations with the Kremlin, without elucidating any caveats.
This comes as the American public’s views of Russia are approaching the lows that followed the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The boost in public favorability towards Russia witnessed in 2017 has all but dissipated, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, Trump continues calling for an end to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling. His firing of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General on 7 November, a day after the election, is a warning shot that he could well try and order Mueller’s dismissal.
Republicans may rush to pass some of the legislation already introduced to Congress. It would allow Republicans to gain distance from Trump on perhaps the most controversial matter of his presidency. Stated defiance against Trump’s approach to Russia was the case with 2017’s Countering America’s Allies Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Similar moves could happen again as public perceptions of Russia continue to sour.
The Hammer-and-Sickle GOP
Even if Republicans do not push through sanctions legislation before the new Congress arrives, Democrats will stay active. This is because Trump is all but sure to criticize such efforts, a criticism democrats can take as another sign the president is too pro-Kremlin. If a bill does pass, it would likely receive a signing statement even more critical from Trump than the one he attached to CAATSA. That one criticized the bill as Congressional encroachment on the president’s foreign policy purview.
While the Democrats oppose Trump’s advocacy for a closer relationship between Russia and the US (or at least between their presidents), they have not elucidated a clear Russia policy of their own. Yet, examining the party’s leading lights’ comments on Russia matters, as well as reviewing how they addressed the issue during the election, indicates a more hawkish policy.
During the midterm election, the Democratic party and its candidates took out a number of ads tying Republicans to Russian President Vladimir Putin. One in Colorado even added the Soviet Union’s hammer-and-sickle to the GOP, a moniker for the Republican party. They are likely to reuse the same tactic in the event of any Republican waffling on new sanctions legislation, likely presenting it as ‘evidence’ that the Republican Party has become subservient to Trump, and even the Kremlin.
As mentioned, attempts to avoid this could play a larger role in Republicans’ support for new sanctions legislation than their actual policy priorities. Even if no progress on the Senate sanctions proposals is forthcoming before January, once the new Congress is seated Democrats will be able to pass such legislation in the House, thereby bringing it back to the top of the agenda.
Apart from sanctions legislation, Democrats’ ability to influence Russia policy will be more limited. Perhaps the most direct change from the election is the fact that the Democrats will take over the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Most likely the committee’s ranking member Eliot Engel will serve as chairman. One of the committee’s most controversial members, Dana Rohrabacher, lost his seat to his Democratic opponent. He also loses the chairmanship of the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. It may now become a bully pulpit for the Democratic Party to attempt to keep Russia in the US headlines in a manner that reflects negatively on Trump and Republicans.
Amid all this, the US Treasury has continued to expand sanctions on Russia throughout the Trump Administration’s time in office. Right after the election it was swift to take action. On 8 November, 2016, it listed new persons and entities linked to the Russian administration in Crimea and Russian-backed forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The Treasury has continued to drip new sanctions designations. But it has waffled on the most strident measure pursued by the Trump administration to date. Namely, the sanctioning of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and his aluminum giant, RUSAL. In particular, its defective parent, EN+.
While the April designation of RUSAL led to major turbulence in aluminum markets, this has since abated. Britain’s Lord Baker of Battle, now referring to EN+ as his company, has been lobbying to have sanctions kept at bay, at least from RUSAL and EN+. Perhaps this is the most egregious example of the ‘Lords on Boards’ phenomenon to date. Lord Baker has had success so far.
Treasury has taken ten separate actions extending deadlines for enforcing sanctions on companies linked to Deripaska between April and the time of writing, most recently on 9 November. The latest extension means enforcement would not come until the new Congress is seated. If a deal comes between Lord Baker and the Trump Administration, it may only add to Democrats calls for more sanctions as they come into office.
Extra Treasury sanctions should be expected. US officials have already signaled fresh measures in response to chemical weapons and the Skripal poisonings.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty meanwhile has been criticized by some Democrats. But they have been muted in doing so. While they may mount a spirited defence of non-proliferation, Russia’s overt violations of the treaty – first announced by then-President Barack Obama, a Democrat – as well as the fact the House does not have a significant say on treaties, will make it difficult for the party to try and force a change of tack on the matter.
On Ukraine, Syria, and natural gas pipelines, Democrats’ Russia policy will be guided by domestic politics. For example the Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats’ subcommittee’s likely new char, Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks, in 2011 co-founded the Congressional Russia Caucus in 2011 calling for new ways to seek cooperation with Russia. Today he is among the most frequent critics of Russia policy in the House. He has not only accused Trump of resisting further sanctions on Russia but even labels Trump’s White House “a propaganda arm for the Kremlin”.
Republicans’ Russia policy will also be dominated by domestic politics, the polarization of which bodes ill for productive or thoughtful discussion on Russia policy. As the Wilson Center’s Yuval Weber recently warned, “the magic of this relationship is that it can always get worse.”