Dems shift gears on Russian pipeline, backing Biden against Cruz’s gambit

“Top Senate Democrats have long opposed a Russian natural gas pipeline that’s set to enrich Vladimir Putin. But those lawmakers are putting those concerns aside to back up President Joe Biden as he navigates increasingly precarious talks with Moscow.

Democrats have consistently supported sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, arguing that the project will jeopardize Europe’s energy security and allow Putin to blackmail his enemies. But as the Senate prepares to vote next week on legislation from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would force Biden to impose those sanctions, Democrats on Wednesday signaled a significant shift in their posture.

The reason, Democrats say, is that they don’t want to undermine Biden while he engages with Russia over its military buildup on the border with Ukraine. As Putin flirts with an invasion of the U.S. ally, Democrats argued Cruz’s legislation would undercut Biden as he seeks to project unity with European allies — and would remove a key leverage point in the talks.”

Biden talks tough on Putin, but European allies are less ready for a fight

“President Joe Biden has warned Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that his country will face severe sanctions if it once again attacks Ukraine. A key question looms, however: Will European countries really go along with serious penalties on Moscow?

On the surface, Europe appears willing. European Union officials and national leaders from across the continent have promised huge economic penalties against Moscow for any new military incursion into Ukraine, in lockstep with their American partners.”

“While much of Eastern Europe — especially Poland and the Baltic states — is on high alert, the issue is nowhere near the top of the political agenda across most of the rest of the continent, where battling the pandemic and its economic fallout remains the priority. In Brussels, EU officials are more focused on why they don’t have a seat at the table for the Jan. 10 talks between U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva than what’s happening along the Russia-Ukraine border. Some countries are reluctant to undermine their business links with Russia; that includes Germany, which relies on Russian natural gas and has backed the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”

“Putin has amassed tens of thousands of troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine. If he orders his military forces to stage another land invasion, it will make it hard for most European countries to go easy on him. But if he takes steps that undermine Ukraine short of an invasion — cyber attacks, for instance, or incursions by mercenaries — that could complicate talks between Europe and the United States about how to react.”

“Another complicating factor for the Europeans is uncertainty about how long the tough U.S. stance on Russia will last, especially if Donald Trump returns to the White House after 2024. Although Trump’s administration imposed plenty of sanctions on Russia, Trump himself regularly sought better relations with Putin. Many European officials even question whether Trump would come to Europe’s aid if Russia were to attack a NATO ally, such as one of the Baltic states.

“If Trump wins the next election, we’re on our own,” one European official said. “And then what?”

Such concerns aside, some European leaders have at times given Putin the benefit of the doubt. In the wake of Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine in 2014, European powers, led by Germany, refused for months to bow to U.S. pressure to endorse sanctions against Moscow. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was particularly worried about the effect such a move would have on Germany’s substantial trade relationship with Russia.

Merkel insisted for months on fruitless dialogue with Putin in the wake of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea even as Moscow-supported separatists escalated the war in eastern Ukraine. President Barack Obama tried to win Merkel over when she visited the White House in May of 2014 — to no avail. It took the downing, several weeks later, of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with 298 people on board for Berlin to agree with U.S. demands to impose sanctions.”

“The U.S. could impose new or additional sanctions on Russian banks and energy firms. There also are potential targets in Russia’s mining, metals and shipping sectors, according to former officials who deal with sanctions. Another option is cutting Russia off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a critical global network for exchanging financial information. That would be a particularly tough move against Russia’s finance sector, though Russian analysts and others have downplayed the seriousness and note the country is developing an alternative.

The trick is to calibrate the sanctions in a way that doesn’t rebound in too harsh a way on the European economy or, in the longer run, the U.S. economy.

European leaders for now appear intent on deescalating the crisis with Russia, even if it means mollifying Putin with concessions. Just before Christmas, for instance, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said it would be “false to link Russia’s behavior in the conflict with Ukraine with the operation” of the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline. That was taken as a signal that Austria would not support any punitive action toward Russia beyond the cosmetic.”

“Biden and his aides have stressed that they are keeping European allies and Ukraine in the loop as the U.S. talks to Russia. Biden’s top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have been in touch with a range of foreign officials to discuss the Ukraine crisis, and U.S. officials will be in Brussels during the next week for a series of meetings at NATO HQ, including a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Jan. 12.

At this stage, however, the administration, like its European allies, is avoiding mentioning details about sanctions possibilities or new weapons shipments it says amount to negotiating in the open.

“We won’t telegraph the specifics publicly, but there is broad consensus between Washington and key allies and partners in Europe on the need for a high impact, quick action response” to Russian aggression, the U.S. official said.”

With Russian guns pointed at Ukraine, West and Moscow dive into talks

“Putin will not discuss his invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, which the West still views as a violation of international law that must be reversed. Putin also has never admitted, and won’t concede now, that active-duty Russian military personnel are operating in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, despite ample evidence to the contrary, including a recent Russian court ruling that discussed contracts for supplying food to Russian forces.

The U.S. and its NATO allies, meanwhile, have already said they will not accede to Russia’s demands that the U.S. remove troops and weapons from Eastern European countries that joined the alliance after 1997. They have already rejected a demand for the removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Europe, and also flatly ruled out Moscow’s demand for a guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will never join NATO.”

“U.S. officials have identified just two areas in which they see the potential for fruitful discussions: on curtailing missile deployments and on scaling back military exercises.

Russia has long complained about existing U.S. “Aegis Ashore” missile defense capabilities based in southern Romania and has recently voiced concerns that Washington would seek to base missiles in Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO have previously dismissed the concerns about the missile interceptors in Deveselu, Romania, saying they were installed to protect against threats from Iran or elsewhere outside the Euro-Atlantic area. A second Aegis Ashore installation in the town of Redzikowo, in northern Poland, is nearly complete and projected to be operational by the end of this year.

The Poland site, not far from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, is likely of even greater concern to the Kremlin.”

“Given the inevitably high cost to Russia of an invasion of Ukraine — in casualties, which could run to the tens of thousands, and in economic and political sanctions imposed by the West — there is some hope in Western capitals that Putin might be willing to back off his threats in favor of negotiations that keep Russia at the center of the geopolitical stage.”

“Blinken said he saw limited opportunity for major advancements”

“While Moscow clearly prefers to speak directly to Washington, which it views as pulling puppet strings at NATO, in recent days, Blinken and other U.S. officials have stressed repeatedly that they will not allow Russia to use the bilateral talks in Geneva to make decisions that impact European allies or for that matter, Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.”

“If Russia has a gun to Ukraine’s head, the West, in its way, has sought to point its own soft-power weaponry back at Moscow — reiterating repeatedly that there will be high-impact economic sanctions. These likely included measures intended to cut Russia’s access to the global financial system.

A fourth EU diplomat said the West would go further than ever before to target not just wealthy Russian figures closely connected to Putin, but also their families — in an effort to severely limit travel to Europe, where Russians often love to spend holidays and shop. While such sanctions might be difficult to defend in court, the diplomat said EU officials were prepared to make the process of fighting the levies as lengthy and difficult as possible.”

Why Belarus is using migrants as a political weapon

“Belarus has sent thousands of desperate migrants to its border with Poland in a bid to antagonize the European Union over sanctions imposed last year, in the wake of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on political opponents and protesters.
The influx of migrants, which EU officials say Lukashenko has deliberately provoked as a “hybrid attack” on the EU, comes at a difficult moment for the EU as the bloc struggles with internal tensions of its own, but has so far resulted in an increasingly unified EU response.”

“People trying to leave places like Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, have received Belarusian visas, bought a ticket on one of the many flights run by the state-operated airline, and headed to Minsk, Belarus’s capital, where some have been housed in government-run hotels, according to the New York Times.

But far from providing humanitarian aid and a safe haven for migrants, the Lukashenko regime is pushing them toward the borders of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania in an attempt to put pressure on the EU to lift sanctions on the nation.

Belarus has also taken direct action to make things harder for its EU neighbors: The New York Times reports that Belarusian security forces have provided migrants with instructions on crossing the borders and tools like wire cutters and axes to break down border fences.

On Saturday, Belarusian journalist Tadeusz Giczan tweeted that Belarusian forces were attempting to destroy fencing at the Polish border and using lasers and flashing lights to temporarily blind and confuse Polish soldiers stationed there in an attempt to help migrants get across the border.

Despite Belarusian efforts to force migrants into neighboring EU countries, however, the vast majority of those currently at the border are stuck there, with little protection from the elements. As winter sets in, migrants are sleeping in tents, often with inadequate clothing and supplies, and EU countries are thus far refusing them entry. Already, at least nine people have died; some estimates are even higher, and conditions could still worsen as winter sets in.”

“Despite the severity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding at Belarus’s borders, Lukashenko’s aims appear to be primarily political. The strongman president desperately wants to bring the EU to the negotiating table over sanctions imposed after he was fraudulently reelected last year and force the bloc to again recognize him as the country’s legitimate leader.”

Nicaragua’s Ortega seeks reelection in questioned vote

“Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sought a fourth consecutive term in elections..against a field of little-known candidates while those who could have given him a real challenge sat in jail.”

“The opposition called on Nicaraguans to stay home in protest of an electoral process that has been roundly criticized as not credible by foreign powers.”

“The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions against those in Ortega’s inner circle, but Ortega responded only by arresting more of his opponents.
…a senior U.S. State Department official, who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. government was willing to consider additional targeted sanctions, but had tried to avoid measures that would more broadly impact the Nicaraguan people.

“It is very hard when you have a government that has very minimal goals that include remaining in power at any cost and disregarding the will of their own citizens or the needs of the citizens to retain that power,” the official said.

The Organization of American States has condemned Nicaragua’s holding of political prisoners and unwillingness to hold free and fair elections, but Ortega’s government has only railed against foreign interference.”

Russian Ammo Ban Hurts Gun Owners, Not Vladimir Putin

“The sanctions are ostensibly in response to the poisoning last year by the Russian government of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. That was a truly horrendous crime committed by an authoritarian regime against one of the few figures who continues to rally dissidents against Vladimir Putin’s regime, even from prison.

“There’s no need to apply sanctions on Russia,” Navalny told The New York Times this week. “For now, all sanctions were tailored to avoid almost all significant participants in Putin’s gangster gang. Do you want evidence? Name one real evildoer who suffered. The airplanes, the yachts, the billions in Western banks — everything is in its place,” he added. Navalny recommends directly targeting Putin’s allies.

As Navalny’s comments suggest, restrictions on imports of firearms and ammunition are less likely to hurt well-connected Russian manufacturers, who will almost certainly find buyers elsewhere, than they are to hurt civilian consumers of those goods. Amid social fracture and loss of faith in institutions, American firearms sales are booming, the ranks of gun owners swelling, and ammunition manufacturers are struggling to meet demand. Cutting off the largest single source of imported ammunition to the United States can only reduce supply and drive ammunition prices higher.”

Biden’s Cuba policy is suddenly in the spotlight

“Cuba’s economic problems largely predate the pandemic, but the coronavirus sharpened them. It decimated Cuba’s tourism industry, a huge slice of the island’s economy. Trump-era sanctions — which the Biden administration has not rolled back — have added to the pressure. And the pandemic itself is taking a toll: Cuba is currently experiencing a record surge in cases and deaths.”

“Biden said the US supports Cuba’s “clarion call for freedom and relief.” Both Democrats and Republicans have backed the protests, but US lawmakers are split over how to approach the demonstrations and acute humanitarian crisis on the island.
Biden promised during his 2020 campaign to roll back Trump’s sanctions on Cuba, but he hasn’t acted. Now, the issue is urgent — both for those who want to see the sanctions gone and for those who feel Biden must keep them in place to continue pressuring the regime.

Biden’s best-laid plans on foreign policy didn’t include Cuba as a priority. But now a crisis in Cuba is here. What the US should do is always a complicated decision, but it’s clear Biden can’t just ignore Cuba.”

“After the protests, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed much of the unrest on the United States, claiming US-backed mercenaries caused the unrest. He called on supporters to also go to the streets and “defend the revolution.” About 100 people were arrested, according to human rights groups.”

“The specter of United States interference remains powerful in Cuba, given, well, a very long history of US intervention there. Fast-forwarding to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, communist revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed dictator and began to pursue closer ties with the Soviet Union — an absolute no-no for the US during the Cold War.

The US tried to overthrow Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion in the 1960s, but after that failure, the US strengthened an economic embargo that largely blocked Americans from doing business or trade with Cuba. There have been tweaks on the margins since, but the embargo has long outlasted the Cold War.

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama began a historic diplomatic opening with Cuba, and as a result of the process, rolled back some economic restrictions tied to the Cold War-era US embargo and opened up travel.

Trump, as president, vowed to reverse those policies; he did throughout his time in office, significantly stepping up the pressure starting in 2019. He imposed renewed travel restrictions and other sanctions, including designating Cuba as a “state sponsor of terror” in his final days in office. A key pillar of Trump’s sanctions severely limited remittances to the island, which cut off another economic spigot.

As experts said, Cuba’s problems are deeper than US sanctions alone, but the Trump-era policy, especially coming during the pandemic, is adding to the strain. And that is creating a dilemma for Washington.”

Biden announces sanctions on Myanmar’s military in response to the coup

“President Joe Biden has announced that the United States is imposing sanctions on Myanmar’s military following its overthrow of the country’s civilian leadership in a coup last week.

“Biden detailed a three-pronged response his administration would be pursuing. The first is an executive order that imposes sanctions on the military leaders who organized and launched the coup, as well as their business interests and close family members.”

“The Biden administration will also block the regime from accessing its roughly $1 billion held in the US, though American funding for civil society groups and the most vulnerable will continue. And it will impose new export controls and freeze unnamed assets that could benefit Myanmar’s military-led government.”

“For Biden to end these reprimands, he said the military should relinquish the power it seized and allow Myanmar to go back to the more democratic government it overthrew.”

“Myanmar has toggled between military and civilian leadership since 1948, though the Tatmadaw, as the country’s armed forces are formally known, has remained the most powerful institution the entire time. The US and other nations thus placed sanctions on Myanmar for decades, hoping those punishments would compel the generals to enact pro-democracy reforms and stop abusing human rights.

They worked, at least for a time. Suu Kyi, under house arrest since 1989 for leading a pro-democracy movement against the military, was finally released in 2010. Then the junta gave up some of its control in 2011 and governed alongside Suu Kyi’s NLD.

That arrangement was quasi-democratic at best”

“the NLD grew popular, trouncing the military’s political arm during the 2015 legislative election — leading the US to lift sanctions the following year — and then again in 2020. It proved Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party were not only popular, but also had a mandate to strip the military of its autocratic authorities. It helped that the US and other countries lifted the sanctions due to Suu Kyi’s leadership.
That in part led her to seek bolder reforms. In March 2020, for example, Suu Kyi proposed reducing the number of allocated seats for military officers in Parliament. She received majority support for the measure in the legislature — but the Tatmadaw vetoed the move.

Ultimately, Suu Kyi’s growing influence and threat to the military’s hold on power led the Tatmadaw to launch a coup, hours before a new NLD-led Parliament was scheduled to sit for the first time.”

Why Trump just sanctioned NATO ally Turkey

“The United States is finally punishing Turkey for purchasing a Russian missile defense system, a long-anticipated move that is likely to increase tensions with a NATO ally.”

“the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system. The administration ordered the penalties under a section of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which gives the president the power to sanction people or entities that do business with Russia’s intelligence or defense sectors. The sanctions specifically target Turkey’s defense procurement agency, known as the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), and its senior officials.”

“Turkey acquired the defense system last year, after repeated warnings by the Trump administration not to do so because they do not want a NATO ally relying on Russian systems. US officials also said Turkey’s use of the S-400 jeopardized America’s F-35 fighter jet program, over fears the Russian system’s radars could collect intelligence on the F-35s.

In response, the US removed Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program, which barred the country from getting the jets and restricted any Turkish personnel from working with the planes. Still, bipartisan members of Congress continued to push for harsher punishment of Turkey, including sanctions.

Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian system further strained relations between Washington and Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has consolidated power in recent years, becoming more explicitly authoritarian and cracking down on dissent, including by jailing journalists and others he perceives as his political enemies.

Erdoğan was angered by the US’s decision to ally with the Kurds in the fight against ISIS in Syria, as Erdoğan associates them with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a terrorist group that’s waged attacks in Turkey. He has also bristled at the US’s refusal to extradite a US-based cleric whom Erdoğan blames for a 2016 coup attempt.

Beyond Turkey’s flirtation with Russia, Turkey has also tried to exert its regional influence in places like Syria and Libya and the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where its gas exploration efforts have increased tensions with Greece and other NATO allies in the European Union, too. (The EU is also considering sanctions against Turkey.)

But despite issuing lots of admonitions, the Trump administration didn’t move forward with the CAATSA sanctions. Some attributed Trump’s refusal to do so to his personal affinity for Erdoğan.

Then in October, Turkey tested the S-400 system in defiance of US warnings, making it much harder for the US to ignore.

And this month, Congress, in its annual defense authorization bill, included mandatory sanctions against Turkey for its Russian defense shopping spree. Though Trump has threatened to veto the bill for lots of reasons, the administration’s move to sanction Turkey on Monday may have been an attempt to get ahead of that requirement.”

Trump loves sanctioning foreign countries — but he’s terrible at it

“Change the Iranian regime’s behavior? Sanctions. Dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arsenal? Sanctions. Depose Venezuela’s dictator? You guessed it: Sanctions.

That indiscriminate wielding of America’s economic might — in a strategy his administration labels “maximum pressure” — is a trademark of Trump’s foreign policy. No president, in the minds of experts I spoke with, has relied so heavily on sanctions to solve intractable problems.

But at the same time, experts I spoke to said no president has failed so clearly to grasp the nature of financial warfare and how to deploy it effectively.

“I’ve never seen a president use sanctions as much or as clumsily,” said David Baldwin, an international economics expert at Princeton University. “He’s like a bull in a china shop.””

“Trump has little to show for his efforts. Iran’s leadership remains in power and is no closer to reaching a new diplomatic pact with the US over its nuclear program. North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenals have grown in numbers and strength. And Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, still shows no sign of letting control of the country slip through his clenched fist.

That’s not to say Trump didn’t inflict economic harm on foreign countries, leaders, and individuals in his first term. US sanctions are directly responsible for deepening financial crises in all three nations, exacerbating woes caused by local mismanagement, corruption, and coronavirus outbreaks.

But that devastation has hurt millions of people in those countries much more than it has helped the Trump administration achieve its goals, making it easier for regimes to blame the US — and not themselves — for the pain.

The fundamental problem with Trump’s approach: He believes sanctions will get him what he wants, but he demands too much in return for their removal, or undermines them through weak enforcement and ever-shifting policies.”

“US sanctions can be very effective — and debilitating — but they work best when a president understands their limitations, how to make them stick, and when to coordinate them with other countries.

Otherwise, the nation those measures may end up isolating most is America”