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Congress runs out of time on pre-emptive Russia sanctions

Senators in both parties concede they've missed the window to hit Moscow with new sanctions before a possible invasion, but they vow swift action if Putin moves on Ukraine.
Image: Russia-Belarus soldiers practice
Soldiers practice at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills in Belarus recently.Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican senators acknowledged Monday it’s unlikely they would be able to strike a bipartisan deal and pass a new sanctions package before what they believe is an "imminent" Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Instead, senators turned to a possible Plan B and began drafting a nonbinding resolution warning the Kremlin of severe consequences if President Vladimir Putin launches such an attack.

Lawmakers in both parties are vowing swift retaliation and unity behind a severe sanctions package if a Russian military incursion unfolds.

"I always say there should be room for diplomacy, and we have to stay at it and use every lever possible," Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a member of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters. "But the general feeling is that ... Russia is so close to moving that really, if we tried to do anything now, by the time it worked through all the processes, it's probably too late."

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said there are conversations that an attack is "going to be imminent, and I know how fast we operate around here,” adding, “So it’s not looking good that we’re going to be able to get [a sanctions package] out this week.”

Russia is so close to moving that ... it's probably too late.

Sen. Joni Ernst, r-iowa

Key Senate leaders received a classified briefing Monday on the deteriorating Ukraine situation from White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other top U.S. defense and intelligence officials.

Emerging from the closed-door briefing in the basement of the Capitol, senators warned that Putin could launch the invasion at any moment and said passing a strong sanctions package would be the best course of action for the U.S. and its allies.

“The Russians are prepared to invade. It can happen in a matter of days if that’s their intent,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said after the briefing.

“I think it would be best if we can agree on sanctions,” he said.

Two major sticking points are holding up a Senate deal: the timing of when sanctions should be imposed and how to address the massive Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which will send natural gas from Russia to Germany. President Joe Biden said last week that the U.S. would “bring to an end” the Nord Stream 2 if Russia attacks, but it's unclear how the administration could do so.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he had made another sanctions offer to his GOP counterpart, Jim Risch, R-Idaho, on Monday.

The offer “goes further in my Republican colleagues’ direction,” Menendez said. “Hopefully they’ll say yes instead of just saying no.”

But Risch told reporters he still needed to review the new proposal. And he pointed out he supported some other Senate efforts on Russia, including the nonbinding resolution and a possible joint statement from Democratic and GOP leadership and committee leaders.

“I’m an all-of-the-above guy,” Risch said.

Another complicating factor is the House schedule. The House is on recess, and members aren't expected back in Washington until Feb. 28 — a point driven home by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

“I’m not sure the timing is going to line up at this point, given the House isn’t even in session anyways,” said Rubio, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, who backs a new sanctions package. “So we couldn’t pass a bill this week or turn it into law even if we wanted to.”

Believing an attack on Ukraine is just days away, the State Department said Monday that it would temporarily relocate all embassy staff members from the capital, Kyiv, to Lviv by day's end.

And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy created mass confusion when he posted a video on Facebook saying he had been informed that Russia would launch its attack Wednesday. Hours later, he walked back the statement, clarifying that he was referring to what he had read in the media.

While he didn’t get into the details of Monday's classified briefing, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., reiterated several times that there is concern from the intelligence community about a possible false-flag operation by Moscow. Under that scenario, Russia would stage a fake attack on its own forces, then use it to justify an invasion.

“If there’s violence in Ukraine, it’s going to be caused by Russia,” Warner said.

Despite setbacks with sanctions negotiations, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that Biden already has the authority to impose sanctions based on existing statutes.

“I don’t want anyone to believe that somehow the U.S. won’t be able to respond with sanctions,” Rubio said. “If there is an invasion, the administration has authority now, under the law, to impose those sanctions.”