Congress Quietly Passes Ukraine Bill

While Washington focused yesterday on the prospect of yet another government shutdown, both House and Senate quickly and quietly passed bills which increase sanctions on Russia and authorize the sale of defensive arms to Ukraine.  S.2828 passed mid-afternoon by voice vote, while H.R. 5859 was passed without objection at 10:25pm last night, on a largely empty House floor. Indeed, the House resolution had been introduced only that day, giving members no time to review or debate the merits of a bill which has major foreign policy implications.

The bill requires the imposition of further sanctions on Russia, particularly on Rosboronexport, Russia’s main weapons exporter, as well as increasing licensing requirements for the sale of oil extraction technology to Russia. Any Russian company exporting weapons to Syria is also liable for sanctions. In addition, the bill contained a contingency, requiring the President to sanction Gazprom in the event that it interferes with the delivery of gas supplies to NATO members or to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The bill also takes aim at Russia more broadly, directing the President to hold Russia accountable for its violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and to consider whether it remains in U.S. interests to remain a party to this treaty.

Significantly, the bill authorizes the president to make available defensive weapons, services and training to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, crew weapons and ammunition, counter-artillery radar, tactical troop-operated surveillance drones, and command and communications equipment. It  also includes additional aid for Ukraine, earmarked to help Ukraine loosen its reliance on Russian energy, and strengthen civil society. Other funds go to increasing Russian-language broadcasting in Eastern Europe by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in order to ‘counter Russian propaganda.’

S.2828 and H.R. 5859, which are reportedly identical, will likely be signed into law, although President Obama expressed concern on Thursday that further sanctions on Russia could prove counterproductive. While the bill stops short of some of the more extreme proposals found in various failed congressional bills (i.e., the Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014), it will have serious ramifications for U.S.-Russian relations. Up to this point, the White House has resisted arming Ukraine, fearing escalation of the conflict. But this bill will make it extremely difficult for the White House to continue this policy.

Arming Ukraine will escalate tensions with Russia, but it will do little to help the Ukrainian army - which is corrupt and in dire need of reform - to combat the insurgency in its Eastern regions. The bill ties the hands of diplomats, requiring that Russia ceases “ordering, controlling… directing, supporting or financing” any acts or groups which undermine Ukrainian sovereignty before sanctions can be lifted. The INF treaty stipulation is also dangerous, raising tensions, and increasing the possibility that both Russia and the U.S. could withdraw from the treaty.

Unfortunately, the provisions in this bill will make it all the more difficult to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine crisis, or to find a way to salvage any form of productive U.S.-Russia relationship. No wonder congress didn’t want to debate it openly.