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Trump to Sign Russia Sanctions Package into Law, Inciting Moscow’s Anger | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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US President Donald Trump. (AP)

US President Donald Trump will sign the new sanctions against Russia that were approved by Congress earlier this week, announced the White House on Friday.

The move was a further blow to hopes in Moscow that Trump’s election might help improve ties that slumped to their lowest point since the Cold War over the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine and alleged interference in the US election.

Trump’s decision was met with Russian condemnation, prompting it to order to reduction of the number of US diplomats in the country. It also ordered the closure of the US Embassy’s recreation retreat.

On Thursday, the US Senate passed with an overwhelming majority new bipartisan sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, sending the package to Trump.

The White House initially wavered on whether the president would sign the measure into law. But in a statement late Friday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had “reviewed the final version and, based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it.”

Trump’s willingness to support the measure is a remarkable acknowledgment that he has yet to sell his party on his hopes for forging a warmer relationship with Moscow. His vow to extend a hand of cooperation to Russian President Vladimir Putin has been met with resistance as skeptical lawmakers look to limit the president’s leeway to go easy on Moscow over its meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The Kremlin had previously said it would hold off from responding until the sanctions became law. But it appeared to change tack after Putin insisted Thursday that he could not “endlessly tolerate this kind of insolence.”

The legislation is aimed at punishing Moscow for interfering in the 2016 presidential election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where the Kremlin has backed regime leader Bashar Assad. It also imposes financial sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement on Friday demanded the US cut its diplomatic presence in Russia by September 1 to 455 — the same number Moscow has in the US — in a move sources said could force out hundreds of diplomats. Russia will also close down the embassy’s recreational retreat on the outskirts of Moscow as well as warehouse facilities.

“The United States under the absolutely invented pretext of Russian interference in their internal affairs takes one grossly anti-Russian action after another,” it said.

Moscow “reserves the right to carry out other measures that could affect the interests of the US,” the statement added.

In a phone call with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that the measures from Moscow were a “necessary step,” his ministry said.

Lavrov said that Russia was “still ready to normalize bilateral relations with the US and to cooperate on the most important international issues.

“However, this is possible only on the basis of equality, mutual respect and a balancing of interests,” the ministry statement added.

Before Trump’s decision to sign the bill into law, Republican Senator John McCain said the bill’s passage was long overdue, a jab at Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress. McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has called Putin a murderer and a thug.

“Over the last eight months what price has Russia paid for attacking our elections?” McCain asked. “Very little.”

Meanwhile, some European countries expressed concerns that the measures targeting Russia’s energy sector would harm its businesses involved in piping Russian natural gas. Germany’s foreign minister said his country would not accept the US sanctions against Russia being applied to European companies.

A spokesman for the European Commission said Friday that European officials will be watching the US effort closely, vowing to “remain vigilant.”

The bill underwent revisions to address concerns voiced by American oil and natural gas companies that sanctions specific to Russia’s energy sector could backfire on them to Moscow’s benefit. The bill raised the threshold for when US firms would be prohibited from being part of energy projects that also included Russian businesses.

Lawmakers said they also made adjustments so the sanctions on Russia’s energy sector did not undercut the ability of US allies in Europe to get access to oil and gas resources outside of Russia.