Congress Unites on Russia Sanctions, But at What Cost?
As the House overwhelmingly backs new sanctions on the Kremlin, Russian lawmakers vow a “painful” response and the European Commission mulls retaliation of its own
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The US Congress is in a bitter fight over healthcare, but there’s at least one area of harmony, Russia. The House has just approved a measure that would impose new sanctions on Russia and block the President from scaling them back. The vote was overwhelming, 419 to 3. One of those 419 was Democrat David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
DAVID CICILLINE: And we simply cannot allow any foreign power to interfere in our electoral process. Given our President’s complete unwillingness to hold Russia accountable for their attack … let’s not mistake it for anything else. It was an attack on America. It has become necessary for Congress to assert its role in this area and ensure that Russia will be held accountable.
AARON MATE: The White House initially voiced support for the sanctions bill, but now says it’s being reviewed. The Kremlin responded today by calling the measure “quite sad.” Russian lawmakers were more vocal, calling for a “painful retaliation” against the US, and warning that hope of improved relations is no more. Russia isn’t the only one, though. The European Union is now warning the US against the US, and says it’s mulling its own response of European companies are impacted. Dan Kovalik is an attorney, activist, and author of the book The Plot to Scapegoat Russia. Welcome, Dan.
DAN KOVALIK: Thank you, Aaron.
AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. So I mentioned that sanctioning Russia is a point of harmony right now in Congress during this bitter fight over healthcare. I should also mention that Iran and North Korea were also included in the sanctions bill. But what seems to really unite everyone right now across the spectrum is indeed Russia. Talk about what the House just did in approving these sanctions.
DAN KOVALIK: Yes, so what they’ve begun is, they have passed a bill which, if it passes the Senate and not vetoed, would become law. So what they have done, first of all they’re setting the stage to make these sanctions the law of the land, which as you indicated will make it … the President therefore could not unilaterally lift the sanctions, as he or she often can in the case of sanctions. So this would become law. The only way to get rid of the sanctions would be through appeal, which as we know, appealing laws is very difficult, as we see now with Obamacare, the attempt to appeal Obamacare. So this would make the sanctions semi-permanent. That’s a big thing.
The other thing it is doing is expanding the sanctions that Obama had put in place in a number of ways, but the biggest and the most controversial way is that it is going to sanction companies, including those in Europe, that do business with natural gas or oil companies in Russia. Now, as most folks know, I think, Russia provides most of the natural gas to the European markets. And so what this would do is not only damage Russia’s economy, but it would also coerce European countries into stopping getting their gas from Russia, and it appears with the hope that they would then turn to the US for natural gas, maybe from fracking. So this is a huge measure, and I think it would likely make it very difficult to normalize, if not impossible, to normalize relations with Russia for the foreseeable future.
AARON MATE: So the energy dynamic that you mentioned between Russia and the rest of Europe includes the Nord Stream 2 Project, right, and would-
DAN KOVALIK: That is correct.
AARON MATE: Right, so energy goes from Russia to Germany. You have other members of the EU who are opposed to it though. But can you talk about the European Commission coming out today, warning the US against pushing ahead with the sanctions? And I’m wondering if all this could potentially lead to actually trade wars if it goes through?
DAN KOVALIK: Yes, well, a lot of the European Union and, as you have indicated, the European Trade Commission, is very upset by this measure. Because they see the US as aiming at Russia, but in fact hitting some of the US’s partners in Europe and forcing their hand as to who they’re going to get their natural gas from. And of course, Russia is obviously much closer to Europe than the US is. And to then say, “You can’t get your natural gas from Russia,” I think not only is offensive to them because it could hurt their economy, but I think they also see it as affecting their sovereignty. So yes, I think the result could be trade wars, not only between us and Russia but between us and some of our allies in Europe.
AARON MATE: I wanna quote you from a recent piece in Forbes that talks about using American energy as a weapon against Russia. And he says, “Now is the time to liberalize US oil and gas export laws. Rising oil and gas exports in the US are an essentially strategy to help buffer the rising influence of Russia on energy markets around the world.” Your comments on that, Dan? And is that motivation there part of perhaps what drives this sanctions effort in Washington?
DAN KOVALIK: Yes, well, again, I think the big motivation seems, one, to undercut Russia, but also to advance the interests of our own oil and natural gas companies in the United States. It seems very much the goal is to increase our economic dominance, not only over Russia but over other countries as well. I mean, I have great concern from an environmental perspective, of course, the idea that we’re going to ratchet up, again, probably fracking and other extraction of oil and natural gas. I don’t think it should be welcome to anyone.
And I don’t think it’s necessary, as you can judge from the title of my book. I don’t see Russia as this enemy of the United States. I think a lot of these allegations are overblown. And to really engage in economic warfare against Russia, which this really is what it is, I think is unnecessary and frankly quite dangerous, and could lead not only to trade wars, as you indicated, but I’m afraid it could lead to real wars between nations, and God forbid, possibly even with Russia.
AARON MATE: Well, on that point, the prospect of actual military conflict, there’s the key flashpoint that you mentioned, which is Ukraine. And of course, as you also mentioned, Obama was the one who imposed those sanctions, which have been pretty punishing for Russia. And when the White House talked about this new sanctions effort this weekend, they initially voiced support for the sanctions, and they cited Russia’s actions in Ukraine as the reason. So let’s play a clip from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She was speaking to ABC.
SARAH H SANDERS: Look, the administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place. The original piece of legislation was poorly written, but we were able to work with the House and Senate, and the administration is happy with the ability to do that and make those changes that were necessary. And we support where the legislation is now and will continue working with the House and Senate to put those tough sanctions in place on Russia until the situation in Ukraine is fully resolved, and it certainly isn’t right now.
AARON MATE: Dan, let’s talk about Ukraine. It’s taken as sort of an article of faith, I think, across the political spectrum that Putin has acted nefariously in Ukraine, he’s responsible for the crisis there, when the truth, I think, is much more nuanced than that. Let’s talk about the roots of the Ukraine crisis and what is being done now to either resolve it or stoke it further.
DAN KOVALIK: Right, so I think the roots of the crisis, they go back quite far, but let’s just go back to 2014. You had what I think most independent [inaudible 00:09:08] observers believe was a coup against the President there. The US did support it in various ways, if not even help to instigate it, but even if you don’t believe that, certainly the US supported regime change in the Ukraine.
Now, what was the first thing that happened? The first measures taken by the new government in 2014 was to outlaw Russia as a second language in Ukraine. Now, this understandably upset the Russian speakers, particularly in the eastern part of Ukraine, who became very fearful of what this new government would mean to them. Not only that, as a number of commentators have mentioned, some, not all, but some of the elements that are part of the new government and the new military in Ukraine are neo-Nazis. And that’s just a fact, that they use neo-Nazi emblems. They have called for the elimination of Jews and Russians in Ukraine.
So understandably, the Russian population in Ukraine became very afraid, and they declared their independence from Ukraine. They did this, I believe, wholly on their own. They took up arms against the new government, again, on their own. But yes, it is true that Putin then ended up backing them and actually helping to organize them into a fighting force. This is what people are very critical of. Whether one justifies what Putin does, I think it’s at least explainable and wasn’t wholly irrational, and I can see why Russia was upset.
By the way, millions of people who have left the Ukraine, refugees, and moved to Russia after this change in leadership in the Ukraine in 2014. So again, a lot of folks in Ukraine, particularly of Russian descent, see Russia as their friend, on their own, not because Putin is somehow influencing them. Similarly, in Crimea, you ended up having a referendum where people voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. All the news accounts I’ve read say they’re happy being part of Russia. Polls show this.
Again, should Putin have used the opportunity to grab Crimea at that point? One could be critical of that. But to say that he is the instigator of the problem is not fair. As Stephen F. Cohen, who’s an expert on Russia, has, I think eloquently, said, “Look, maybe you can say it’s a 50/50 blame to be shared, some by the West, some by Putin.” But that’s a place where one can negotiate and talk. To wholly blame Putin for this just really does not really capture the facts on the [inaudible 00:12:28].
AARON MATE: Yeah. The question, for me, hanging over the Ukraine conflict for a while has been, “Are the outside powers, Russia and the West, going to stop treating it as a proxy fight and allow it to be neutral so that it’s not in anybody’s orbit?” But it seems that if the US is insistent on continuing the Obama policy of sanctioning Russia unless it backs down from its efforts into Ukraine, I don’t know see how that happens.
Russia said repeatedly, it’s not gonna allow a hostile country on its border, especially after the broken promises of the end of the Cold War, in which it was promised that NATO would not expand further to the east. But it has, up to Russia’s borders. And Ukraine just recently held talks with NATO about joining, which for Putin is a red line.
DAN KOVALIK: Well, of course, and again, one has to at least step back and look at Russia’s perspective. You know, if we were talking about Mexico and about Russian meddling in Mexico, for example, where they helped bring about a regime change, and then put troops on the Mexican-US border, that’s incomprehensible. People would be upset, but again, it’s not even comprehensible that that would ever happen.
Meanwhile, we have NATO troops, as you indicate, contrary to promises made at the end of the Cold War, on the borders of Russia. The US has just put Patriot missiles in the Baltic States for the first time ever, on the Russian border. You know, Russia has a lot of reason to be fearful, much more than the US has to be fearful of Russia. And yet we’ve somehow projected on Russia this idea that they’re the aggressor, when again, we have troops and missiles at its borders, and Russia does not have the same at our borders. So you know, I just think from an objective point of view, the US is just hysterical about what’s going on with Russia.
The other thing I’d like to mention is, of course, at the G20, we know that Trump and Putin sat down. Some people, I guess, didn’t like that, but they sat down. They made some agreements on Syria, said that they want … They made an agreement to at least talk about ratcheting down the Ukraine crisis, which seems eminently reasonable. And then that’s followed by the House passing sanctions. Similarly with Iran, you had the US government, including Trump, saying begrudgingly that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, and yet we then ratchet up sanctions against Iran. To me, it defies logic, and it looks like the US here, truthfully, is the aggressor in these situations.
AARON MATE: So Dan, finally, getting back to the domestic situation that you mentioned, in terms of the discussion of Russia right now and how the country is being treated. I wanna play a clip from, I think, the foremost proponent of Russia hysteria on cable news, Rachel Maddow. Last night on her show, she talked about Trump officials potentially being compromised by Russia. Here she is.
RACHEL MADDOW: And whether or not you care about why this presidential campaign and this transition took so many more meetings with Russians than any other American presidential campaign ever has, while the Russians were mounting a massive multi-pronged attack on our election to try to benefit their campaign, whether or not you care about the substance of those meetings and contacts and communications, presumably there is a reason they did not disclose those meetings before. And if Russia, at any point since those meetings and contacts and communications happened, if Russia at any point decided to hold that over these guys, who weren’t publicly admitting to it, right? If Russia decided at any point to hold that over these guys, to influence their conduct as American officials, then what’s our recourse as a country? We used to take action to protect ourselves from that as a country. How do we protect ourselves from that now?
AARON MATE: So Dan, I’m amazed that as all of this is going on, with all these actions that Trump has taken that are not in Putin’s favor, there is still this line and this suggestion by people like Rachel Maddow that Russia has something over the Trump White House and is somehow influencing their decisions. I mean, when it comes to the actual issues, Trump has appointed a bunch of hawks on Russia policy, including recently Kurt Volker, who he just tapped as the top envoy for the flashpoint issue of Ukraine. But yet, this Russiagate line persists. It’s striking to me. Your thoughts hearing that?
DAN KOVALIK: Yeah, no, exactly. I agree with you. As I mentioned, we’ve put Patriot missiles now on the Russian border for the first time ever. This is very recent. That seems to cut against the idea that somehow Trump is a pawn of Putin. Similarly, we just, under Trump, admitted Moldova for the first time, as somehow-
AARON MATE: To NATO, to NATO.
DAN KOVALIK: To NATO, yes, admitted these nations.
AARON MATE: Oh, and Montenegro, Montenegro.
DAN KOVALIK: Montenegro, that’s it. Sorry, Montenegro for the first time. Again, this is not in Russia’s interest, and yet this was done despite the fact it was done under Trump. You of course had the bombing with the 59 Tomahawk missiles that Trump shot in Syria, in response to the alleged chemical attack earlier this year. Russia was upset about that. And meanwhile, while Putin’s announced a 25% decrease in their military budget, Trump sought an increase in our military budget which is equal to 80% of Russia’s entire military budget. Now, I wanna say he sought it, because actually Congress just gave … the House just approved a military budget even more than Trump had asked for. The point being, we hardly seem to be laying down for the Russians, if that’s what Rachel Maddow is concerned about.
Meanwhile, let me just note, we strangely sold $110 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia to, I guess, help it wipe out Yemen at the moment, while Saudi Arabia also seems to be supporting some of the terrorists that we came to be fighting in the Middle East. There’s a bipartisan effort now to outlaw any boycott of Israel, which seems to be against the First Amendment. But the point being that Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to have incredible influence over our foreign policy, but people like Rachel Maddow don’t seem to be concerned about that. So there just seems to be hysteria when it comes to Russia, and it just is not rational.
AARON MATE: Dan, I look forward to the YouTube comments from people calling us both Putin apologists, and I thank you for joining us.
DAN KOVALIK: Thank you.
AARON MATE: Dan Kovalik, attorney, activist, author of The Plot to Scapegoat Russia. Dan, thanks a lot.
DAN KOVALIK: Thanks, Aaron. Appreciate it.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.