Top Democrat proposes crushing sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has introduced an amendment that would trigger a cascade of sanctions against top Russian officials, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, major financial institutions, sovereign debt transactions and more in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Why it matters: U.S. officials have been sounding the alarm about Russia's massive military buildup on the eastern border of Ukraine. The sanctions threat is intended to serve as a powerful deterrent against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Driving the news: Menendez's proposal was introduced late Thursday night as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass defense-spending bill on which the Senate will vote after the Thanksgiving break.
- It would require President Biden to impose sanctions and visa bans against top Russian military and intelligence officials engaged in planning or executing an invasion of Ukraine, and authorizes additional military assistance to Kyiv.
- The amendment also calls for sanctions against Russian banks, state-owned enterprises, and the critical oil, gas and mineral sectors. It would ban primary and secondary sovereign debt transactions, which would deal a major blow to the Russian economy.
The intrigue: The amendment would sanction any company or corporate officer involved in planning or operating Nord Stream 2, a pending natural gas pipeline that will allow Russia to circumvent Ukraine and deliver energy directly to Europe via Germany.
- Senate Republicans have been pushing for a vote on their own amendment to sanction the pipeline project now — before any potential Russian invasion.
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took to Twitter this week to publicly plead with senators to back that amendment in a last-ditch effort to block the pipeline. Ukrainian officials contend that stopping the pipeline from becoming operational is the clearest remaining route to preventing a Russian invasion.
- Flashback: The administration waived sanctions this spring on the Swiss company that was working to complete the project, arguing that it was not worth jeopardizing the relationship with Germany to try to block a pipeline that was already 98% finished.
Between the lines: The sanctions in Menendez’s amendment require a determination from the president that the hostilities toward Ukraine warrant sanctions. That leaves room for interpretation about what kind of Russian behavior would cross the threshold.
Behind the scenes: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has refused to allow a vote on the Republicans' amendment thus far, citing a technical issue with the bill's language, according to sources familiar with the situation.
- That has infuriated several Republicans, who believe Democrats are abandoning a position that once had bipartisan support at the request of the Biden administration.
- Menendez’s inclusion of Nord Stream sanctions came after Republican pressure and “shows the debate slowly heading in our direction again, even as the actual legislative process is mired in make believe procedural violations,” a GOP aide told Axios.
The state of play: Secretary of State Tony Blinken has warned that Russia could "rehash" its 2014 invasion of Ukraine in the coming months, though Putin's intentions in massing troops near the border have been hotly debated.
- Menendez's amendment is intended to serve as a trip wire that Russia won't want to cross.
What to watch: It's still unclear whether either amendment will receive a floor vote when the Senate reconvenes.