Shadow Government

Congress Must Make Russia Pay for Attacking U.S. Elections

Democrats and Republicans should take decisive action now.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 23, 2016. / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA        (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 23, 2016. / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

In ten days or so, President Donald Trump is likely to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. If the U.S. president puts America first, he will firmly tell his counterpart to cease all information operations against the United States, or else Russia will face proportionate U.S. actions, including but not restricted to stronger economic sanctions. At the same time, given Russia’s recently renewed cyber assault on Ukraine, at least one targeted assassination, and increased artillery and other conventional attacks on the Ukrainian military, Trump should also remind Putin of his own commitment to end the war.

But for such warnings to be credible, our president needs leverage, lest Putin take any such remarks as empty threats. Leverage can best be provided now by quick passage of the Russia sanctions bill that Congress is currently considering. Indeed, failure to act at this crucial time would weaken America’s hand.

Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives have a national security obligation to take immediate and decisive action to match the Senate’s Iran-Russia sanctions act, which was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by a vote of 98 to two. This bill is designed to make Russia pay for its multifaceted attack on the U.S. elections last year, its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and its continued occupation of portions of that country. It constitutes the strongest action by Congress yet to deter the Kremlin from further efforts to undermine international law, security, stability, and the democratic principles held dear by those in the Baltics, France, Ukraine, the United States, and anywhere else Russia has recently meddled.

First and foremost, the Senate bill addresses Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. This attack on the American vote — the very heart and soul of our democracy — can never be tolerated. Russia must be held responsible for its actions. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. Protecting U.S. sovereignty and the integrity of our free and fair electoral process is an American issue.

To hold Russia accountable, the legislation prohibits U.S. people or entities from doing business with the defense or intelligence sectors in Russia, ensuring that U.S. businesses are not indirectly supporting Russia’s military or intelligence operations aimed at the United States, its allies and partners, or innocent civilians in Syria. This legislation could potentially discourage third parties from doing business with these sectors as well, which could have a significant impact on Russian arms sales and incentivize more allies and partners to quickly wean themselves off of Russian weaponry.

Second, the Senate bill codifies the economic sanctions the U.S. has already implemented in response to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty in Crimea and the Donbass, as well as the country’s malicious cyber activities. The bill gives Congress a veto on any executive branch proposals to change the sanctions regime, clearly signaling U.S. resolve. The European Union, NATO, and other major allies including Australia, Japan, and South Korea, who joined the United States in imposing these sanctions, are counting on America to continue to lead this effort. The Senate bill also expands sanctions on Russia’s energy sector, proceeds from which line the pockets of Putin’s colleagues and provide for more than half of the overall Russian budget. While current EU and U.S. sanctions prohibit participation in oil exploration projects in Russia, the Senate bill blocks investment in all projects involving Russian oil companies. It also provides discretionary authority to the president to prohibit investment in Russian energy pipeline projects. While these provisions may not be agreeable to all, it is clear that sacrifices will be have to made to hold Russia to account for its violation of U.S. sovereignty.

Former FBI Director James Comey said the Russian government would “be back” in the next election — but it never truly left. Russian intelligence agents continue to operate in the United States, and it is likely that pro-Russia hackers are still at work attacking U.S. institutions. At the same time, Russia continues to use propaganda and false news stories to influence public opinion and political outcomes. There is more we must do (as one of us argues in The Last Straw, a report for Third Way) to close sanctions loopholes, combat dark Russian money through new transparency measures, and bolster Justice and Treasury Department enforcement efforts. Nevertheless, the Senate bill is a first step towards exacting a price from Russia for its attack against U.S. democracy.

With this in mind, a united Congress should take decisive action now. Together, Republicans and Democrats must provide Trump with the leverage to send a clear message to Russia that America will unequivocally stand up for democratic principles and resist any who attempt to undermine its sovereignty.

Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Evelyn N. Farkas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia from 2012 to 2015.

Jacqueline Ramos, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, previously served as senior adviser to the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

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