Yesterday Twitter erupted briefly with news that the Trump administration was allegedly defying the will of the people by refusing to impose sanctions that both houses of Congress passed overwhelmingly last July. The reason? The administration informed Congress Monday that it was waiving sanctions for now on buyers of Russian arms. The context, however, matters, and the administration’s actions were, I believe, entirely prudent. Here’s what happened and why.
The law at issue (you can read the text here) gave the president 180 days to impose sanctions on a person who knowingly, on or after the date of the law, “engage[d] in a significant transaction with a person that is part of, or operates for or on behalf of, the defense or intelligence sectors of the Government of the Russian Federation.” Trump, however, had the statutory discretion to waive imposition of the sanctions if, among other things, he determined that a waiver “is in the vital national security interests of the United States” or if a person is “substantially reducing” the number of significant relevant transactions with Russia.
Moreover, it’s important to understand that there are a number of U.S. allies, like India, who’ve purchased Russian arms or are considering future defense deals. For example, India has long considered a substantial purchase of Russia’s still-in-development fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57. If, in fact, the new sanctions regime is deterring these deals (we don’t yet have details), then the United States has an incentive not to sanction friends who may well be in the process of voluntary compliance.