Russia Sanctions Steady in Trump’s Hands, EU Says

WASHINGTON (CN) – A senior EU official told the Senate on Tuesday that he sees no signs the Trump administration is planning to let Russia skate on its activities in Ukraine.

In a two-part hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee, head of the EU delegation to the U.S. David O’Sullivan called his conversations with the Trump administration “reassuring.”

The Dublin native said a “remarkable unity of purpose” still exists between the United States and the European Union on these issues.

During a hearing to discuss the EU as a partner against Russian aggression, the diplomat called transatlantic coordination “crucial” for the effectiveness of targeted sanctions against Russia.

“The European Union and the United States, along with others in the international community, have taken a principled position against the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula, which we do not recognize, and against Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine,” O’Sullivan said.

The diplomat noted that both the EU and U.S. have preconditioned any easing of the sanctions against Russia on its full implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Though Trump had hinted on the campaign trail that he might lift the sanctions on Russia, his administration has soothed lawmakers’ fears by reiterating support for the sanctions.

Meantime lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are drafting new sanctions against Russia for its documented interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

One bill drafted by Sen. Ben Cardin calls for punitive measures to be taken against investments in Russia’s energy and natural gas sectors for Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria.

Though Cardin is the committee’s top Democrat, his bill has received bipartisan support.

O’Sullivan cautioned against such unilateral moves, however, during an exchange today with committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

“I think it would be very important that before moving in the direction you have indicated, that we coordinate very closely,” O’Sullivan said. “Because I think it is possible that measures of the kind you mentioned could have an adverse affect on the European Union.”

O’Sullivan said he worried specifically about what these disciplinary measures would mean for the many EU countries that still depend heavily on Russia for oil and gas imports.

When Cardin took over questioning, the Maryland senator pressed O’Sullivan on whether he believes that sanctions on Iran should be as closely coordinated between the U.S. and EU as the Russia sanctions.

O’Sullivan called for the EU and U.S. to coordinate and have a common position where possible.

“I think the most important thing, Sir, with respect, that anything either of us do is done in full awareness of the possible consequences for the other side in this relationship,” he said.

That applies to sanctions on both Russia and Iran, he added when Cardin asked him to clarify.

During a second panel, the director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona University spoke about an EU in crisis as elites double down on European unity while nationalists want to follow British efforts to reassert a greater national identity as embodied in the “Brexit” vote.

Underlying the conflict between the two in defining the EU’s future is the lingering Eurozone debt crisis and the influx of migrants, Kurt Volker said. 

Russia has exploited the challenges facing Europe to weaken it and obtain advantage.

Volker offered what has become a familiar list of tactics Russia uses in European countries, including the use of propaganda, trolls and fake news to distort European public opinion.

He said that Russia uses energy as leverage to influence government decision-making, as well as economic arrangements to create close ties to Russia that can then be used to elicit pro-Russia policies from European leaders.

Volker noted that Russia has also given funds to political parties, including the National Front, the right-wing and populist party of French presidential frontrunner Marine Le Pen.

Still, he said Russia is not and will not be the decisive factor in resolving Europe’s challenges.

“Russia exploits opportunities, and is willing to be brazen in its actions,” he said. “But it is not now, nor will it ever be capable, of defining the future of Europe or the United States.”

“Russia faces major challenges of its own – from demographics to a declining and undiversified economy, corruption, political decay,” Volker continued.

“It is playing a weak hand well – but make no mistake that it is a weak hand.”

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