Despite the fact that for the past several months we here in Russia kept saber-rattling with our “Topol-M,” increased the defense budget and continued to prepare for the Cold War with the U.S. in various ways, the Americans still have not noticed. At least they do not consider the issue of relations with Russia important enough to discuss during the election campaign. While the Islamic State, Syria and trade with the EU occasionally surfaced during the debates, the senatorial and congressional candidates never brought up the Ukrainian crisis, not to mention making any policy statements about it.
It is doubtful that they will remain indifferent after the elections. For the first time since 2006 the Republicans were able to obtain a majority not just in the House of Representatives but also in the Senate, and until the next presidential elections they will be spewing out new initiatives to prove to voters they have many great administrative ideas. Among them will definitely be traditional Republican proposals to take a harder line with the Russians, but even more unpleasant for Russia may be the Republican approach to the energy sector.
Two Chambers vs. One President
Difficult times are coming for President Barack Obama. Previously, the initiative was on his side; he was the one who piled new reforms on Congress, and the Republican congressmen uncooperatively blocked them, making it difficult to lead the country to prosperity. Even when the Republicans offered something themselves, it could be tied up with the help of the Democratic majority in the Senate. Now the Republicans have the majority in both chambers, and this time the initiative is theirs. President Obama will have to either sign the bills passed by Congress or veto them, explaining to the public each time why he does this.
It is not difficult to guess on what issues Republicans will be most active. They don’t have that many issues to start with. Prior to the presidential elections in 2016, they need to woo the middle-of-the-road voter, who is hardly attracted by proposals to lower taxes or cut budgetary expenses. The traditional fight against abortion and gay marriage is becoming less effective — the affinity for conservative religious values is weakening even in the U.S. Therefore, little remains of former Republican strong points: national security, global leadership and the battle against radical green initiatives. These are the areas where Republicans will be active.
Russia falls under all three categories. It poses a threat to U.S. security, thwarting American efforts to overthrow dictatorial regimes such as Assad’s in Syria. It undermines American global leadership, redefining boundaries in Europe and arranging a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. Even green initiatives play indirectly into the hands of Russia, as they distract the U.S. from developing traditional energy by diverting resources to the unprofitable renewable energy nonsense. Now that Republicans have a majority in the Senate, and several highly probable Republican presidential candidates in ranks, they will definitely try to end all of this.
Even before winning the Senate elections, Republican senators tried to pass tougher sanctions against Russia. In the spring of this year, shortly after the annexation of Crimea, a group of Republicans led by McCain tried to gain approval for the Russian Aggression Prevention Act. The act required providing official status of major non-NATO member allies to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, to begin supplying arms and intelligence to those states, to drastically increase the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe, to refuse all negotiations with Russia on arms reduction, to freeze assets and block access to financing resources for the major Russian state-owned companies and many more undesired matters. All of this was supposed to happen in just seven days in case Russia did not to withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian border, meaning also the return of the Crimea to Ukraine.
The Senate, controlled at that point by the Democrats, did not pass this bill. Most likely it will not be passed now either — the bill is too harsh and was obviously created to show off, and with the idea that it would fail anyway. Yet, a more relaxed version of the bill — the Ukraine Freedom Support Act — could be passed in an expedited manner. This act imposes sanctions on Russian companies that are in any way linked to the supply of weapons to countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Eastern Europe and Syria, without consulting those countries. The sale of technology and American investments in the Russian energy industry will be restricted even more. Gazprom could also fall under new sanctions if it decides to considerably restrict the supply of gas to the countries of NATO, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
Another undesirable aspect of any sanctions imposed by Congress is that only Congress itself can abolish them in the future. Until now, U.S. sanctions on Russia were introduced by the president and it was much easier to undo them: Come to an agreement with the president himself and he will lift the sanctions. This cannot be done with congressional sanctions: Both chambers must approve a reversal, which is extremely hard to achieve. Recall the fuss around the Jackson-Vanik amendment. It took Congress 25 years to scrap it after the reasons for the introduction of the amendment had ceased to be relevant.
The Need for More Pipelines
Decisions made by the new Senate, and seemingly unrelated to Russia, could actually cause further problems. For example, Republicans already made a promise that the next item on their agenda after the budget is to approve construction of the gigantic Keystone XL pipeline system, which will span from Alberta, Canada to Texas, U.S.A. For six years, Democrats have not allowed this project to be realized, arguing that it will kill alternative energy in the U.S., damage the environment, disrupt the natural course of life for indigenous peoples, etc. After approval of the project by both chambers of Congress, it will be very difficult for President Obama to veto pipeline construction.
Keystone XL will connect the oil fields of western Canada, including the oil sands of Alberta, to oil refineries in Texas and American ports in the Gulf of Mexico. This will allow Canada to actively invest in the development of Alberta’s oil reserves, and the U.S. will be able to eliminate virtually all oil imports from Venezuela, Africa and the Middle East, and even start exporting Canadian oil. Obviously, discussion alone about realizing such a project in the future could cause oil prices to drop, which are already falling.
In addition to Keystone XL, over the past several years the Republicans have been making various proposals aimed at making life easier for American oil and gas companies. Their overriding idea is that the government should grant more exploration licenses and expedite the process. They also want the government to lift the ban on crude oil exports and not impose stringent environmental standards on coal-fired power plants. A lot of these proposals are now likely to pass. In addition to their majority status, Republicans also have the argument about the duty of the United States to provide energy assistance to its allies in Europe, which are facing Russia with its threats to limit gas supplies for political reasons.
Of course, these hardships will not be felt immediately. Although Republicans have the majority in both chambers of Congress, negotiation and approval of most of their initiatives will take many months. Anti-Russian sentiment on the part of Republicans could decrease over time, especially if the conflict in Ukraine becomes overshadowed by some new crisis or subsides. Should it not, a Republican president could reinforce the anti-Russian efforts of the Republican congressmen in just two years. Like Reagan in his time, this president will deem the fight against the evil empire a priority for U.S. foreign policy.