06.08.2017 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The US Congress’ ‘Legislative Coup’ on Russia Policy

784642343The amount of attention devoted to Russia in the US, both in government circles and the media, is an unambiguous reflection of the extent to which the US foreign policy is guided by ‘Russophobia’, and thrives on this constructed enmity to give a particualr direction to the global security situation, leave an impact on the balance of power and indeed on its own political economy. As a matter of fact, it is by maintaining constantly unstable relations with Russia can the US maintain a global scenario wherein it can continue to spread the rhetoric of instability to win allies and the sell them weapons worth billions of dollars. This is the conjecture where the US political economy and global balance of power meet and converge into a policy of ‘Russophobia.’ In the past, the main architect of this policy used to be the US president; however, the US Congress has effectively taken over this role now, and is steering the US policy to the said direction. This particualr takeover also shows how ‘Russophobia’ is gradually giving way to a clear and manifest anti-Russia mindset, spread far and wide in the US polity.

The US Congress has effectively blocked almost all avenues of co-operation with Russia. This is pretty much evident from an exhaustive list of areas and sectors of economy (energy, defence, mining, railway transport, etc.) that the bill covers, blowing away the US president’s efforts to normalize relations with Russia. While the two meetings in Hamburg seem to indicate the beginning of normalization of relations, the sanctions have shown that these prospects are as dim as they were during the last months of the Obama administration. Thanks to the ‘legislative coup’ by the US Congress, the legislation has virtually taken the Russia policy out of the hands of the US president, forcing the otherwise ‘most powerful man in the world’ to play a second fiddle to his country’s legislative body.

The bill passed, and the vote-strength it is carrying, makes it a kind of policy choice that the US president cannot override or even hope to do so. The president cannot undo this legislation or even modify sanctions without the Congress’ approval. This kind of legislation, when passed in the 1970s as the history of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment shows, remained in place for almost 38 years. In the current context, this legislation therefore means the US Congress depriving the US president of all the flexibility that he might have needed to deal with its strategic competitor, Russia. The Russian response to the bill shows that all of its hopes for better relations with the US under president Trump have been thrashed to the ground. As a matter of fact, it is this very hope that had led Russia to decide against retaliation when the US president Obama had expelled a number of Russian diplomats and impounded two diplomatic compounds of Russia in the US in 2016.

Russian retaliation against the bill now reflects new thinking in Moscow. This thinking is based upon a realization that normalization of Russia-US relations is out of the question, at least in the foreseeable future and that the new US policy vis-à-vis Russia will be the one aimed at strangulating Russia as far as possible, using all means available at the US’ disposal. This includes giving new directions to the on-going war and peace process in Syria, and this also includes hurting key Russian ally, Iran, in the region.

The Iran-sanction is also an indirect message to Russia as far as the latter’s approach to bringing peace to Syria is concerned. Not only is the bill aimed at squashing Russia and its allies in the region, but is also carrying seeds of arm-twisting other regional countries that may otherwise have been attracted to developing stronger relations with Russia. By imposing sanctions on key economic sectors, the US is discouraging countries like India, Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan from entering into economic and strategic co-operation with Russia. It is for this particualr reason that Russia has (rightfully) sensed that the US policy is directed towards gradual strangulation.

Will this happen or not is another thing because there are also visible cracks that can blowback. For instance, as currently written, the bill clearly aims to equally penalize American and European businesses because of the restrictions it has imposed on energy projects that involve Russian companies. More importantly, the bill seeks to prevent the construction of the Nord Stream Two gas pipeline that would export Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Europe. Germany supports the pipeline as the most cost-effective way to meet future gas demand, as do most—but certainly not all—of its EU partners. Will these countries then align their policies with that of the US in the long run?

As of today, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The EU is clearly not happy. In a joint statement, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said, “To threaten companies in Germany, Austria and other European firms with fines in the US if they take part in or finance energy projects like Nord Stream 2 represents a new and negative dimension to US-European relations.”

The US-EU disagreement is not restricted to Russia only. The EU has equally adopted a different stance on Iran. Despite the US sanctions, the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will be travelling to Tehran on August 5 to attend the inaugural ceremony of President Hassan Rouhani in her capacity as the head of the Iran-5+1 Joint Commission monitoring the JCPOA.

This disagreement is not merely a policy disagreement between the US and EU. On the contrary, it reflects the US’ diminishing role and influence in the world. The US Congress’ ‘legislative coup’ might therefore turn out to be an albatross in the US neck, and thus unwittingly accelerate the diminishing of the US role in the world. Who will then the US lawmakers and defence establishment put the blame on?

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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