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Trump Signs 'Seriously Flawed' Russia Sanctions Bill

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump has done the deed. He's signed legislation imposing new sanctions on Russia. The bill sailed through Congress with a veto-proof majority, which forced Trump to sign it. But as he was signing it, he lashed out at Congress, calling the bill significantly flawed because it limits his presidential power to ease sanctions on his own. Russia, meanwhile, said the sanctions were tantamount to a full-scale trade war.

Well, we wanted to hear more about the actual impact of these sanctions, so we brought in George Beebe. He's a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest and was an adviser on Russia to Vice President Dick Cheney. Thanks for being here.

GEORGE BEEBE: Thank you.

CHANG: So what kind of economic impact do you expect these sanctions really to have?

BEEBE: Well, I don't think they're going to have a very big economic impact, at least not very soon. What they're really doing is codifying some things that were already in place - put in place by executive order by President Obama. And this new bill is making them a law. So it's not going to change a whole lot in our economic sanctions. And on Russia's side, there's really not a lot that they can do - at least not very soon - of sanctions on their own without really hurting their own economic interests. So I don't expect a lot on the economic side.

CHANG: Well, if the actual impact isn't that severe, then this is more just, like, a symbolic political move. And if so, would that rein in Russia?

BEEBE: Well, I think it is, largely. But it does send a very important message to Moscow about how we regard that relationship. And it's a very negative message. And I think it could have some significant repercussions in other aspects of our bilateral relations.

CHANG: Like what kind of repercussions?

BEEBE: Well, one of the things the Russians have said is that they may respond asymmetrically to this, doing things in other areas of the relationship that could hurt us. For example, North Korea is one. We've been looking to both Moscow and Beijing to help us put pressure on the North Korean regimes over its missile tests. And the Russians have sent some signals that they may not cooperate in the ways that we're liking.

CHANG: The president said in his statement the sanctions bill is seriously flawed, particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch's authority to negotiate. Do you agree that's a flaw? I mean, should the president be able to negotiate foreign policy directly?

BEEBE: Yes, I think this is a serious problem with the sanctions bill because it really has escalator clauses. It puts in place provisions that could increase our pressure on Russia, but it doesn't really have good provisions for de-escalating. And what that means is it's going to be hard for the president to reward the Russians for good behavior if they comply with the things that we're asking. So that actually creates some perverse incentives on their part. It encourages them to defy us because they think they're going to be punished regardless of what they do.

CHANG: Yesterday, the Russian foreign ministry said Moscow's reserving the right to take further retaliatory measures directly in response to this bill. We saw that Russia has already taken, you know, some retaliatory measures. It wants to cut down on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia. What other sort of direct acts of retaliation do you think will happen because of this specific legislation getting passed?

BEEBE: Well, I think the Russians are sending us two signals here. One is that they're going to defend themselves very, very resolutely if we continue to encroach on their interests. But they're also leaving room for diplomacy to try to ensure that this doesn't spiral out of control into a direct confrontation with the United States. So...

CHANG: How so? How do you see them leaving room for that?

BEEBE: Well, President Putin's interview over the weekend, where he announced the retaliation against our diplomatic presence...

CHANG: Right.

BEEBE: ...And property in Russia sent a couple of signals. One is he said, look, there are a range of retaliatory steps that we could do. But he said, I don't favor those for now, which essentially said to us, I want to leave some room for compromise here. They also gave us five weeks to reduce our presence - until September 1. When President Obama initially imposed the restrictions on Russia's presence here in their diplomatic property, we gave them three days.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BEEBE: So that's a signal that they...

CHANG: So Putin's being conciliatory...

BEEBE: Well, he's...

CHANG: ...Generous.

BEEBE: ...Giving us an opportunity for diplomacy here. And I think we need to recognize both carrot and stick on their part.

CHANG: Last night, Russia's prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, tweeted this last night. He tweeted, the Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way. What do you make of that?

BEEBE: Well, I think this reflects a problem of dashed expectations. And that's true both here in Washington and in Moscow. The Russians had some high expectations of the Trump administration. And I think this sanctions bill has convinced them that there's not going to be a breakthrough in the bilateral relationship. At the same time in Washington, we have tended to swing between two extremes in our thinking about Russia. On the one hand, we hope that they'll be our friends and allies. And when we realize they won't be, we tend to think of them as enemies. And the reality is really in between those two extremes.

CHANG: George Beebe is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

BEEBE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.