Defense bill would allow sanctions waivers for some allies buying Russian weapons

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The annual defense policy bill would establish a “special rule” allowing the Trump administration to waive some sanctions on U.S. allies for buying Russian weapons.

The sanctions in question were required by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that Congress passed overwhelmingly last year.

That bill, which was passed to punish Moscow for destabilizing activities including its election interference, included a section requiring sanctions against those making transactions with Russia’s defense industry.


But Defense Secretary James Mattis has been arguing the sanctions bill left no wiggle room to not sanction allies who intend to move away from Russian arms, but still need to contract with Moscow to maintain their older equipment.

As such, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would allow the administration to suspend the application of sanctions for allies if they are making moves to change their relationship with Russia.

The NDAA provision was first highlighted in a Democratic summary of the bill and was confirmed by a Republican House Armed Services Committee aide during a background briefing with reporters.

“While imposing significant new sanctions on Russian defense industry, it provides the secretary flexibility, on a 180-day basis, to waive the application of sanctions of section 231 for an ally if the secretary is able to manifest that that ally has done a series of things, either terminate that relationship with Russia, significantly scale down that relationship with Russia or made other assurances about how they are dealing with that historical relationship with Russia,” the aide said.

In congressional testimony last month, Mattis highlighted India and Vietnam as countries where the United States is “going to paralyze ourselves” without a national security waiver for the sanctions.

“Indonesia, for example, is in the same situation, trying to shift to more of our airplanes, our systems,” he added later. “But they’ve got to do something to keep their legacy military going.”

The committee aide said House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) was convinced by that argument.

“Section 231 requires, with very little flexibility, the administration to, for example, if a particular country has a historic relationship with Russia and they sign a contract to maintain equipment that they’ve brought previously from Russia, if they do that, under CAATSA, the administration would have to cut off our defense relationship with that ally,” the aide said. 

“So while we are working with these allies, we are conducting billions of dollars in [foreign military sales] with them, we are partnering with them to deal with the larger problems posed by China, I think that the chairman was persuaded by the case made by Secretary Mattis that this is not the best way to accomplish that national defense objective.”

Tags Defense bill James Mattis Mac Thornberry sanctions US-Russia relations weapons sales

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