The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation allowing the president to waive penalties against countries that purchase weapons from sanctioned Russian defense companies if they are seeking closer ties with Washington.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought the waiver authority, which was approved by the House on July 26 as part of a massive defense bill, saying it would help countries like India which had close ties with Moscow in the past but are now trying to "pull away from the Russian orbit."
Mattis in a letter to Congress earlier this month claimed that waiver authority would not benefit Russia, a major arms exporter, contending that "it will only benefit the U.S. and countries willing to pursue a security relationship with us."
Under the Russian sanctions legislation that Trump signed a year ago, any country trading with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors faces potential penalties from the United States.
The law is designed to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, involvement in the Syrian civil war, and meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The sanctions waiver provision was worked out this week in negotiations between Congress and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, media reported.
Besides India, Vietnam and Indonesia are other countries media have said might receive waivers from Russian sanctions under the provision.
Mattis has argued that sanctions waivers are needed so such countries can continue to purchase spare parts needed to maintain arsenals of Russian-made aircraft, tanks, and other weapons that they purchased in the past, even as they develop closer defense ties with the United States.
Under the waiver provision, the president must certify that a country is both reducing arms imports from Russia and is expanding defense cooperation with the United States.
India is one country that has historically used a large amount of Russian military equipment, from combat planes to ships and submarines. It is in the final stages of negotiating a $6 billion deal to buy S-400 long-range surface to air missile systems from Russia.
But New Dehli has in recent years been diversifying its arms purchases, turning to the United States and Israel for modern equipment. It has ordered $15 billion of weapons from the United States over the past ten years, and U.S. companies currently are bidding for contracts for fighter planes and helicopters worth billions of dollars.
While the sanctions waiver provision in the $716 billion defense bill is expected to particularly help India, another provision of the bill is aimed at punishing Turkey for its recent move to buy S-400 missile defense systems from Russia.
Washington has repeatedly warned Turkey, a longtime U.S. and NATO ally, that the Russian missile systems cannot be integrated into NATO's air and missile defenses.
The House-passed bill would prohibit delivery of advanced U.S. F-35 stealth fighter jets that Turkey has purchased unless it cancels the S-400 purchases and meets other conditions.
The House-passed bill must be merged with a Senate version of the defense bill before it can be signed into law by Trump.
With reporting by AP and Reuters