Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 16, 2022

In case you’re hearing headlines about sanctions and Russia, you’ve got reason to be confused.

But just maybe it tells us something about the unnecessary twisty path that the politics of a split Senate requires these days to get anything done. The things that should be complicated too often are dismissed with a slogan, while the simple, common-sense things take on layers of political complexity.

For weeks, Senate Republicans have been pushing sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany pipeline to show that they are tough on Russia.

Either not to be outdone in perceived toughness or to underscore unity with European allies against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere, Joe Biden and Senate Democrats, have opposed those targeted sanctions. Apart from all else, Biden and Democrats had wanted to support Germany’s expressed desires for the pipeline.

But now, we’re smack in the middle of an international emergency and strategic talks by ourselves and through NATO with Russians who have massed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukraine border threatening to grab a chunk of the Ukraine. Worse, we know hear that Russia is planting its own guerrillas inside Ukraine to run “false flag” operations to provide an excuse for invasion.

Biden, NATO and European leaders, in turn, are threatening to impose widespread economic sanctions if Russia moves ahead.

You’d think that a new oil pipeline from Russia might be included in those wider sanctions. Just to add to crossed strategic wires, Ukrainian officials have supported U.S. sanctions against the pipeline because it goes around the Ukraine.

So, on Thursday, the bill brought by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to impose those pipeline sanctions failed to win 60 votes, though it attracted a few Democratic votes.

In part, the failure came about because Democrats offered a counterproposal by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) for wider sanctions, including the pipeline, to take effect if Russia does indeed invade Ukraine territory. It was launched to undercut Cruz.

Intricate Politics

Even getting that vote to the floor reflected an unusual political compromise struck with Cruz, that was part of the maneuvering a month ago to end single-senator objection to the appointment of dozens of U.S. diplomats. Cruz was opposing a pipeline for the first time in his life, though, admittedly, this one doesn’t involve Texas oil.

In fact, the media coverage focused on how Cruz brought about the vote rather than whether any problem is resolved by its outcome.

Nothing in the Senate is easy, politics-free, or seemingly straightforward – though one does wonder whether Sen. Kyrsten Sinema thinks that this represents good bipartisanship.

An analysis in Politico.com explains that the pipeline debate gives Republican senators a chance to squeeze centrist Democrats and those in competitive reelection races this fall who are eager to show they’re tough on Russia.

“More broadly, though, Republicans see an opportunity to turn the page on an era that found them struggling to defend (Donald Trump’s) the former president’s periodic coziness with Vladimir Putin’s government amid Russia’s documented meddling in the 2016 election,” said Politico.

Wait, what? The same Ted Cruz who apologized publicly to Tucker Carlson on Fox after criticism that he might be seen as insulting Donald Trump over whether Jan. 6 rioters were “domestic terrorists,” is the guy to suggest we need to repair perceived Trump coziness with the Russian leader?

Do I understand that Senate Republicans now are eager to leverage toughness about all-things-Russia for political advantage, except in whether Russia interfered on behalf of Trump in two national elections?

And that Joe Biden is somehow is being less than tough by waive mandatory sanctions on the pipeline last year out of a desire to support relations with Germany, which wants to bolster its natural gas resources? But the new German government has since changed its position on the issue, agreeing to hold off on final certification of Nord Stream 2 while Putin threatens an invasion of Ukraine. 

And Biden is conducting actual delicate diplomatic talks with Russia over its military buildup on the border with Ukraine, talks backed with threats of wider sanctions.

Politico quoted Sen. James Risch (R-Ida.) on the Foreign Relations Committee as saying Democrats have “just spent an enormous amount of political capital holding all their people together who do not want to be in that position” of opposing the sanctions “I mean, this absolutely doesn’t make sense.”

Well, that’s one statement we all could endorse.

What’s Reasonable?

From the cheap seats, the arguments seem reasonable to tie coordinated sanctions together as a package in the middle of an international emergency appear to make some immediate sense.

Whatever else happens as a result of Russian military threats, the response by the United States and Europe needs to be linked and clear to all parties.

As always, it is not immediately clear what sanctions voted by the U.S. Senate against a pipeline passing through European countries will actually achieve.

Germany may want the oil, Ukraine may want the route and whatever economic benefits come with it, and Russia may want the cash and influence that come from being an energy exporter to Europe. But all of that would seem to require re-alignment under the stern stare of 100,000 troops and tank turrets on the horizon.

It makes sense that we would take positions that punish Russia for specific actions without alienating our own allies.

What seems not to require new understanding is the precarious state of politics in our Senate and the desire of people like Cruz to promote himself in the name of presidential campaigning.

We seldom seem best served by having individual senators pursuing separate foreign policy agendas from the White House.

But there’s always time in the Senate day for some personal politics and self-promotion.

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