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For years, policy makers in Washington have been focused on measures to reduce their European allies’ dependence on natural gas from Russia, from the promise of the Three Seas Initiative to pending bipartisan legislation championed by Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introducing economic sanctions against foreign companies helping construct the controversial Nord Stream II pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Amidst this push, the US House of Representatives and US Senate are preparing for the final conference on the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which will also have an impact on Russia’s export of gas to Europe. The House version of the NDAA contains a floor amendment—the Huffman Amendment— sponsored by Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA), striking out NDAA legislative language that calls to limit the use of Russian Federation fuels at US defense installations in Germany and other European nations. This amendment works against the goal of US energy policy in Europe that aims to boost energy security and help its allies diversify away from Russian gas.

During his congressional testimony on July 24, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller confirmed the troubling extent of Russia’s campaign to interfere with the 2016 US Presidential election. And he memorably noted that Russia’s malign efforts to interfere in US elections were continuing “as we sit here.”

Given that, it seems an odd time for anybody to argue that “there is no reason to sanction Russia anymore.” But such were the words of Kenneth Rapoza, writing in Forbes on July 29. So, let’s recall why the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, and other countries imposed sanctions on Russia and why maintaining, and possibly intensifying, those sanctions remains important. 

On June 20, thousands of Georgians took to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, to express their disapproval of a Russian lawmaker addressing the Georgian parliament from the speaker’s chair. Sergei Gavrilov, a Russian State Duma deputy and president of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, visited Georgia for the convening of the organization’s 26th General Assembly, an event designed to foster relations between Orthodox Christian lawmakers. The procession, however, was cut short by opposition politicians who doused Gavrilov with water before he was escorted out of the building.

Armenia’s ongoing political drama intensified in mid-May when Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, reacting to a court’s decision to release former president Robert Kocharyan while he awaits trial on charges related to the government’s crackdown on protesters in 2008, called on his supporters to blockade the country’s courthouses to begin the “second phase” of the Velvet Revolution. On June 5, Pashinyan announced his plan to create a unified anti-corruption court with the aim of cleansing Armenia’s judicial system of corruption.

These developments underscore Pashinyan’s efforts to legitimize himself and his ruling coalition’s post-revolution vision for Armenia. To do so, Pashinyan and his government will need to pursue the key reforms he promised while leading the mass protest movement that deposed the former government and elevated him to Armenia’s premiership in April 2018.

US Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, saying on June 20 that the Russian president is a "co-conspirator" in Maduro's human rights abuses.

Maduro has led Venezuela since his election as president in 2013, when he took over from Hugo Chavez. On his watch Venezuela has become mired in an economic and humanitarian crisis marked by widespread unemployment, food and medicine shortages, and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have left country. After Maduro was inaugurated for a second term on January 10, following elections deemed fraudulent by many international observers, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó was selected as interim president by the National Assembly and recognized by the United States and more than fifty other countries. Guaidó attempted to rally support from the Venezuelan military to depose Maduro in his “Operation Freedom” on April 30, but has been so far unable to force Maduro to step aside.

As Russia “seeks to weaken NATO, the European Union, and the United States,” the Western alliance of democracies must push back against Kremlin aggression “and the place to do it is Ukraine,” John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told US senators at a hearing in Washington on June 18.

Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014 and has since supported separatists in eastern Ukraine. While “Western support for Ukraine has been substantial and essential,” Herbst testified to the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, “it has not been as agile and effective as it could be.”

The near collision of US and Russian warships in the Philippine Sea on June 7 is just the latest close call between the two nations’ militaries that have increasingly found themselves in tense encounters around the globe. While a crisis was averted, the next time may be different.

Barry Pavel, senior vice president, Arnold Kanter chair and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, said with close calls like the one on June 7 “the risks of escalation are very significant.”

Atlantic Council’s Michael Carpenter tells lawmakers the United States needs to do more

The United States needs to do more to push back against Russia’s attempts to disrupt democratic societies around the world, Michael Carpenter, a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told US lawmakers on May 21.

“Today, Russia is doubling down on malign influence operations across Europe and North America, but we remain unprepared, underfunded, and often ignorant of the threat,” Carpenter told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment. He testified in a hearing on “Undermining Democracy: Kremlin Tools of Malign Political Influence.”

In his new book, Atlantic Council’s Anders Åslund says the United States Should Demand Transparency

The ability for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his oligarch allies to hide money in banks and real estate in the United States is “a real strategic danger,” US Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) warned on May 7.

The senator lamented the fact that the United States is “now number two in terms of the nations that support secret financing and funding and allow for the hiding of assets behind shell corporations. We should not be on that list at all, much less number two.”

All around the world, Russia is increasingly asserting itself, propping up dictators, and, in some instances, posing a direct challenge to US interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin held his first-ever meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok on April 25. Kim’s visit to Russia, an old ally, came as diplomacy with US President Donald J. Trump has faltered.

Trump and Putin spoke on the phone for over an hour on May 3. Venezuela and North Korea were among the topics the two leaders discussed.


We take a look at some areas of confrontation, what is driving Russian interests, and how the United States is responding to this challenge.



    

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