Compromise defense bill includes Russia sanctions waiver language

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The final version of an annual defense policy bill would set criteria for waiving sanctions on countries that have bought Russian weapons but now want to turn to U.S. arms.

A version of the provision was originally included in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) at the request of Defense Secretary James Mattis, but it came under scrutiny last week after President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In announcing the outcome of House and Senate negotiations, senior staffers for each chamber’s Armed Services Committee stressed that they are not reducing sanctions on Russia.

“There is absolutely nothing in this conference report that reduces current sanctions on the government of Russia, a company, an entity or a person,” a staffer told reporters Monday at a background briefing. “This has all been about, the Russian government has figured out a way to go in like the mafia and at very low cost, stranglehold some countries that we think — from a diplomatic and interoperability perspective — that we should have closer relationships with.”

At issue are sanctions required by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that Congress overwhelming passed last year.

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

Earlier this year, Mattis asked Congress for the authority to grant national security waivers to sanctions on countries that have historically had a relationship with Russia but now want to buy U.S. weapons. He cited India, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The House granted Mattis’s request, but the Senate version of the bill did not. At the time, the Senate Armed Services Committee said it felt the administration already had sufficient waiver authority.

Last week, after Trump’s roundly criticized summit with Putin and amid congressional discussions of new Russia sanctions, some Democrats targeted the House’s CAATSA waiver language.

“We can ratchet up sanctions on Russia, not water them down,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week. “We want to make sure that they are not weakened in any way at all, as some on the House Republican side may be attempting to do.”

Amid the new scrutiny, Mattis penned a letter to Congress saying that while Russia needs to be punished for its “destabilizing behavior,” Congress should “avoid significant unintended damage” on long-term interests.

“The chairman felt that Secretary Mattis’ letter clarified that this was more about helping countries that want to come our way come our way,” the House committee staffer said Monday.

The waiver criteria included in the final version of the bill says that those seeking a waiver have to prove that they are not a Russian intelligence service, not doing anything to undermine multilateral organizations such as NATO, not doing anything to undermine U.S. operations and not doing anything to undermine U.S. technology for defense cooperation.

Once that is proved, the country also has to demonstrate one of two criteria: that it is significantly reducing dependence on Russia or significantly increasing cooperation with the United States.

“Our staff worked very hard to come up with waiver language that allows the administration to bring people out from under this Russian mafia-style way of doing business,” the staffer said, “and bring them further into our orbit.”

Tags Charles Schumer Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act Donald Trump James Mattis Military National Defense Authorization Act sanctions
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