US Congress approves Russia sanctions, arms for Ukraine

Residents queue to receive humanitarian aid in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Dec 11, 2014. US lawmakers approved fresh economic sanctions against Russia overnight Thursday, a move likely to anger President Vladimir Putin as American l
Residents queue to receive humanitarian aid in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Dec 11, 2014. US lawmakers approved fresh economic sanctions against Russia overnight Thursday, a move likely to anger President Vladimir Putin as American lawmakers toughen their response to continued Kremlin-backed aggression in Ukraine. - PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US lawmakers approved fresh economic sanctions against Russia overnight Thursday, a move likely to anger President Vladimir Putin as American lawmakers toughen their response to continued Kremlin-backed aggression in Ukraine.

The legislation also authorises - but does not legally require - US President Barack Obama to provide lethal and non-lethal military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, ammunition and "tactical troop-operated surveillance drones."

Washington backs Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, but Obama has yet to approve the bulk of an arms request by Kiev.

The Bill's co-author Senator Bob Corker criticised the delay as a "hesitant US response to Russia's continued invasion of Ukraine."

The Pentagon in November delivered the first of 20 anti-mortar radar systems to Ukraine.

Russia voiced "deep regret" over the Bill.

“The openly confrontational nature of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act approved by both houses of the US Congress without debate and proper voting cannot cause anything but deep regret,” foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.

The sanctions Bill was passed unanimously Thursday in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Because of a technical issue it returns to the Senate, where aides say there likely will be unanimous consent for final passage Friday.

It would then go to Obama's desk for his signature.

Lawmakers dropped a key provision in the original Bill that would have taken the rare step of designating Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as major non-Nato allies of the United States.

Senate aides said the provision was removed at the 11th hour in order to ensure final passage.

The measure hits Russia's defence and energy sectors, punishing companies like state defence import-export company Rosoboronexport.

It requires Obama to impose conditional sanctions on the defence sector should Russian state-controlled firms sell or transfer military equipment to Syria, or to entities in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova without the consent of the governments in those nations.

The rule is aimed at helping stem the flow of weapons from Russia across the border into eastern Ukraine, where Washington and Kiev accuse Moscow of fomenting separatist unrest.

It also gives Obama authority to penalise Russian gas giant Gazprom if it is found to be "withholding significant natural gas supplies" from Nato states, or further withholds such gas supplies from Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova.

"We need to let President Putin know loudly and clearly: we will not stand for his blatant disregard of international law (and) we will not abandon our friends," House Democrat Eliot Engel said.

Washington earlier slapped sanctions on Russian firms and officials in September, a move seen as pinching the Russian economy and leading to a slide in the value of the ruble.