President Donald Trump will soon decide whether to slap fresh sanctions on Russia, a decision that will be widely watched as a test of his proclaimed detachment from Russia’s powerful elite.
Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill Tuesday to impose new sanctions on Russia over its interference in the 2016 US election, as well as its human rights violations, annexation of Crimea and military operations in eastern Ukraine.
The bill also gives Congress a way to block any easing of new sanctions against Russia, North Korea and Iran, as well as older ones against Russia.
A bill could cross the President’s desk before the end of the month for him to either sign into law or reject. The White House has been sending mixed messages about whether or not they’ll support the bill.
Here’s what you need to know about Russian sanctions.
Why are there so many sanctions against Russia?
Ukraine: The United States and the European Union rolled out a rash of coordinated sanctionsin 2014 over Russia’s occupation, and then annexation, of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.
Certain Russian individuals were hit with travel bans and asset freezes, and companies were hit with restrictions on their activities in the US and EU. Russia’s powerful elite, including members of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, were targeted.
The sanctions were largely aimed at hurting the Russian economy. They targeted Russian state banks and major corporations, including state oil companies, such as Rosneft, and arms makers.
US election meddling: On December 29, US President Barack Obama announced fresh sanctions on Russia for allegedly interfering in the 2016 US election. Those sanctions included the closure of two Russian compounds used for intelligence purposes and expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the country. A report by intelligence agencies in January this year alleged that Putin had ordered a cyber influence campaign to help boost Trump’s chances of winning the election.
Who has imposed them?
The US and EU have spearheaded sanctions against Russia, but other countries have followed suit.
Canada joined the US and EU in the initial round of specifically targeted sanctions on March 17, 2014, after a referendum in Crimea on whether people wanted to join Russia or remain part of Ukraine — the US considered the poll to be illegitimate. Hours after those sanctions were placed, Putin signed a draft bill for the annexation of Crimea, and five days later, he officially signed that bill into law.
Other countries imposed their own sanctions in the days and months following, including Japan and Australia, as well as several non-EU countries in Europe, including Norway and Switzerland.
What impact have they had?
Measuring the impact of sanctions on Russia’s economy is not an exact science, and different experts have different opinions.
But what seems clear is that the price of oil — which Russia’s economy depends on — has had a far greater impact than sanctions.
An International Monetary Fund report in May showed that the Russian economy was climbing out of a two-year recession and was expected to grow 1.4% this year, in part on resurgent oil prices.
But the report also said that medium-term growth would be subdued, at about 1.5%, partly because of “the lingering effects of sanctions that restrain the potential to increase investment.”
In 2015, when the Ukraine-related sanctions had begun to take hold, the IMF reported that the measures could shrink the economy by 9% over time.
A reduction in trade with Russia has also hit some parts of the EU, if not the economy overall, and in August 2014, Russia retaliated by placing a ban on food imports from the countries that had imposed sanctions. That hit the EU’s agri-food sector profoundly.
What does Russia want?
Putin has repeatedly ridiculed the sanctions and called on countries, particularly the US, to drop them.
But Russia’s economy is beginning to show new signs of life, so such calls may now be aimed at improving conditions for certain individuals, companies or sectors.
It appears that Russia is lobbying for the US to drop other sanctions imposed under the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which targets Russians who the US considers human rights abusers.
In Putin and Trump’s second meeting, at the G20 in Germany this month, Trump claims the two leaders spoke about adoptions, an issue strongly associated with the Magnitsky sanctions. Russia banned Americans from adopting Russian children in response to the Magnitsky sanctions. The act was drafted after the alleged beating to death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison in 2009.
The Russian government has never admitted any crime was committed, saying he died of heart failure.
The President’s son, Donald Trump Jr. and others in his campaign team, also admitted to meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign period, who publicly said she arranged the meeting to discuss adoptions.
Trump Jr.’s account was that he agreed to meet the lawyer because a middleman said she had damaging information against his father’s political rival, Hillary Clinton.
Reinstating Russian adoptions would likely go hand in hand with weakening the sanctions applied under the Magnitsky Act.
Bill Browder, a key proponent behind the Magnitsky Act, has said that Putin is desperate to have the US drop the Magnitsky sanctions, arguing that they will likely hit Putin himself in the future.
“For Putin, this is his single largest foreign policy priority, to get rid of these sanctions, which sanctions him and the other people around him,” Browder told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in a recent interview.
Where does the EU stand?
The EU has been at the forefront of sanctions on Russia, but it’s nervous about the sanctions being mulled in US Congress.
That’s because there is concern they could hinder several key energy projects in Europe and further inflame internal EU divisions, CNN Money reports.
There is one project in particular that has stoked animosity — Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that would extend from Russia across the Baltic to Germany.
Despite efforts to reduce its reliance on energy imported from Russia, roughly a third of the EU’s natural gas still comes from there.
Energy security is therefore highly politicized and an issue that Europe views as being off limits — even for close allies like the US.