On Russia Sanctions

The State Department announced this week that it will not be enforcing the newest set of sanctions against Russia. These sanctions were intended to act as punishment for the Russian’s interference in the 2016 election, as well as the annexation of Crimea and other human rights violations.

The law was passed with overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress last summer, and signed by President Trump shortly thereafter. Through this law, it would be required that sanctions be issued on heavy buyers of Russian weapons and military equipment. Congress had also included a provision limiting the President’s ability to suspend or terminate the sanctions going forward.    

As justification for discontinuing enforcement, the State Department has offered that “foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions.” They see the sanctions as no longer necessary because they have already served their purpose by deterring any purchasers of Russian military equipment from continuing to do so.

The State Department’s decision is mired with controversy for several reasons. With the bill being passed into law upon the President’s signing, it would seem to be the Constitutional duty of the Executive Branch to make sure that the law is properly carried out.

However, President Trump has communicated his dissatisfaction with the law since signing it last August. He expressed in a statement that he believed the bill to be “seriously flawed” and that “by limiting the Executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together.” His decision to sign the bill ultimately came out of an interest in “national unity”.      

The bill could be seen as too limiting on the Executive branch’s foreign policy powers to begin with. Yet with Trump’s signing of the law, it could be believed that it is his duty to uphold and enforce the sanctions regardless.

In addition, the law was intended to have a greater purpose of punishing Russia after their interference in last year’s elections. Despite the potential effectiveness the law may have had so far simply through deterrence and its looming presence for all those interested in Russian weapons, the greater stance Congress was looking to take was focused around putting country and democracy first. That position could potentially be lost if sanctions are seen to have already done their job without considering the political reasoning for the law. As Senator Chuck Schumer had said after this week’s State of the Union Address, “If President Trump wishes to save his presidency from the shame of having failed to address one of the gravest threats facing our country, he would announce this evening in no uncertain terms that he was sanctioning President Putin.”

As President Trump continues to struggle with an investigation into his campaign’s connections to Russia, any sort of concessions his administration may allow Russia will continue to be put under intense scrutiny.