Congress races to strike Russia sanctions deal as tensions mount

Lawmakers are racing to hammer out a deal on Russia sanctions legislation amid escalating tensions with Moscow over its troop buildup along the Ukrainian border.

The House and Senate are out of town this week, but negotiations are ramping up behind the scenes as lawmakers confront growing concerns about a Russian military incursion into Ukraine and skepticism about the chances of a diplomatic offramp.

Congress is under pressure to have an agreement by the time both chambers return to Washington, as experts warn the window for deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin is rapidly closing.  

“There is strong bipartisan consensus in quickly moving forward legislation,” a Senate aide told The Hill.  

Lawmakers have offered competing sanctions proposals and are in talks to iron out substantial differences, including when to slap financial penalties on Moscow.  

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), backed by 41 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, introduced legislation to impose sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine.  

The sanctions would target Russian officials and financial institutions if Biden determines Russia has invaded or had a significant “escalation of hostilities” against Ukraine. The measure would also require Biden to identify and sanction other sectors of the Russian economy if he determines doing so is in the interest of U.S. national security. 

The bill also authorizes sanctions on companies in Russia that offer secure messaging systems including SWIFT, the international system by which banks communicate, and includes additional security assistance and provisions to help Ukraine push back against Russian disinformation.  

But senators are discussing changes to the legislation aimed at winning over at least 10 Republicans — the number they’ll need to break a potential filibuster on the Senate floor.  

Menendez convened a bipartisan group of senators — including Sen. James Risch (Idaho), the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee — this week to try to hash out a path forward on his bill, and talks are ongoing.  

Republicans are pushing for legislation to include some immediate sanctions authority, arguing that Putin should be punished financially for the buildup along Russia’s border with Ukraine.  

“Now is the time to put sanctions on. Not after the fact. I mean,  if you want to deter somebody, do it now. …  There is plenty, plenty [of] reasons right now to put sanctions on,” Risch said during an interview with Fox News Radio. 

The ongoing negotiations include discussions of both sanctions that would be immediate and sanctions that would be triggered if Russia invades Ukraine, a Senate source told The Hill.  

A perennial sticking point has been what to do with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry gas from Russia to Germany. Senate Democrats recently blocked legislation from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would have slapped sanctions on businesses related to the pipeline and let Congress force a vote on reinstating the penalties if Biden waived them.  

Risch and Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have offered legislation that includes sanctions provisions targeting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. It would also designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism if it invades Ukraine.  

“This is an urgent matter and the Biden administration slow-rolled assistance as Russia continues to move forward with their aggression. If I and my colleagues in Congress can come to an agreement on sending immediate emergency lethal aid to Ukraine, that will be a step in the right direction,” McCaul said in a statement to The Hill.  

The negotiations come as events around Ukraine move quickly, injecting a curveball into the talks where any congressional action is effectively on hold until at least next week.   

Russia has failed to heed repeated calls by the U.S. to pull back its more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, a signal that diplomacy is stalling. The United Kingdom is further warning that Moscow plans to “install pro-Russian leadership” in Kyiv.  

The State Department on Sunday announced that it had ordered the evacuation of family members of U.S. government employees in Ukraine and authorized the departure of nonessential staff. 

The Pentagon has also readied up to 8,500 troops to potentially deploy to allied countries near Ukraine, if necessary, and the U.S. and its allies have stepped up the delivery of defensive military assistance to Ukraine. 

Biden on Tuesday reiterated he wouldn’t send U.S. troops into Ukraine but vowed there would be “serious economic consequences,” including sanctions directly on Putin, if he moves into Ukraine.  

“If he were to move in with all those forces, it would be the largest invasion since World War II. It would change the world,” Biden told reporters. 

Gary Clyde Hufbauer, nonresident senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the sanctions being outlined by the Senate are a good start that “could certainly pain the Russian economy and Putin’s inner circle,” but that the inertia inherent to passing legislation works against efforts to deter Russia. 

“The timeline is just too slow to shape fast-moving events on the ground,” Hufbauer said, warning that “the window of opportunity for an effective deterrent … is this week” and that Putin is likely on the precipice of “deciding the shape of his bite” into Ukraine. 

In addition, the Senate bill gives Biden discretion in imposing sanctions. That flexibility, Hufbauer noted, was generally a “good idea,” but the most effective deterrent would be for Biden to “specifically state to Russia and the world what sanctions will be imposed if Russia invades, even a ‘minor’ invasion, and the sanctions so stated must be extremely painful.” 

The administration has been in touch with Congress on the issue.

Officials briefed staff for House and Senate leadership and committees on Tuesday about the state of play with Russia and Ukraine. They are also working to set up all-member briefings for the House and Senate.

Administration officials have also been reaching out to lawmakers, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman speaking to nearly 20 members over the past week, an official told The Hill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week that he had spoken to national security adviser Jake Sullivan to urge the administration to take action before a potential invasion.

“What I’ve been hearing … is encouraging, that they’re prepared to take steps before an incursion, not afterwards,” McConnell said. “It appears to me that the administration is moving in the right direction.”