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State Dept. hints it will waive sanctions against Russia demanded by Congress

The State Department hinted Tuesday that while President Barack Obama will sign a bill calling for new sanctions against Russia, the Obama administration is likely to waive those sanctions.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that the administration has "concerns" with the bill, as it calls for sanctions that go beyond those already agreed by several countries to punish Russia for its decision to annex Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. She also noted several times that the bill allows for a presidential waiver of sanctions, a sign the government will likely use that flexibility.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 2.16.08 PM State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki hinted the Obama administration will not impose sanctions against Ukraine under a new bill that will soon become law.
Image: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

"While this legislation appropriately preserves the flexibility of time and calibrates sanctions with our international partners, it does send a confusing message to our allies, by appearing to move forward on new sanctions outside of our close consultations with them," she said.

"The legislation provides the president to waive the sanctions provisions as appropriate, and when determined to be in the national security interests of the United States," she said. "It provides that flexibility as well."

Psaki was asked specifically whether her comments meant waivers were likely, but she declined to answer. "I'm not going to predict what we'll do in the future," she said.

But her comments clearly indicated that the way for the administration to avoid sending a "confusing message" to other countries would be to waive the sanctions. She also stressed, as Secretary of State John Kerry did earlier in the day from London, that Russia has made some positive moves recently that could be a sign of progress.

"Let me say that Russia has made constructive moves in the last days and there are some indications that whether it is the line of control negotiation or the calm that is, in fact, in place in a number of places, the withdrawal of certain people, there are signs of constructive choices," Kerry said. "And that can only be helpful, hopefully."

The executive branch generally is not a fan of sanctions mandates from Congress, and the passage of high-profile sanctions legislation related to Iran and Cuba in the mid-1990s eventually forced these bills to evolve. They now routinely include language allowing the executive branch to waive sanctions for national security reasons.

That same language is also in the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which the House and Senate quickly and unanimously approved last week. The legislation says it's U.S. policy to help Ukraine as it tries to resist Russia, and calls for sanctions against Russian companies that sell items to Syria or are otherwise involved in Ukraine or other countries.

Sanctions could include ending export finance to Russian companies, stopping procurement, and banning the export of military or dual-use goods. The bill also authorizes lethal and non-lethal aid to Ukraine.

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