Time to Act on Russia Sanctions

Nearly six months since the intelligence community concluded that Russia interfered in our democracy, nothing has been done. Now Congress has a chance to step up.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, front, attends a meeting with graduates of military and police academies in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. (AP/Alexei Druzhinin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, front, attends a meeting with graduates of military and police academies in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. (AP/Alexei Druzhinin)

On June 15, in a remarkable feat of bipartisan cooperation on a critical national security issue, the U.S. Senate passed tough Russia sanctions legislation by a stunning vote of 98-2. By taking this long overdue action, the Senate recognized clearly what the U.S. intelligence community described six months ago as Russia’s “unprecedented” attack on America’s democratic process during the 2016 elections and took the first step to a meaningful response.

Action on this issue is vital; without a response, both former and current U.S. intelligence officials warn that the nation is still under attack and that future elections are under threat. Yet President Donald Trump continues to deny Russia’s attack and seeks to reset relations with Russia. With the Senate bill in hand, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and other Republicans in Congress should work with their Democratic colleagues to stop Trump’s dangerous accommodation of Putin. The House should rapidly pass the Senate’s Russia sanctions legislation with more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto from President Trump.

If this legislation becomes law, it would send a strong message to Russia and the world that countries cannot intervene in American democracy and expect to get away with it. Russia’s successful intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections then encouraged them to intervene in the Dutch and French elections and Putin is committed to expanding his frontal assault on democratic governance.

The legislation would hit Putin where it hurts: Russia’s military, intelligence, and energy sectors. It would strike a blow to Russia’s economy just as Russia is preparing for elections in 2018 and to host the World Cup.

First, the bill codifies existing sanctions against Russia that were put in place after Russia illegally seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. All previous Obama administration sanctions were developed by the executive branch and put into place via executive orders, giving Trump the ability to lift them with a stroke of a pen. The legislation therefore blocks President Trump from unilaterally canceling those pre-existing sanctions. He would have to go to Congress with changes.

Second, the legislation would put in place additional sanctions against Russia’s vast military and intelligence industrial complex, including with sanctions against companies and other countries that purchase Russian defense equipment. This will have far reaching consequences for Russian foreign policy and its military modernization. Russia uses arm sales to build relations with countries around the world, just as the United States does. It also uses arm sales to bring in revenue to support its defense industrial base, which helps Russia modernize its military. These sanctions will expose countries that purchase Russian military equipment to U.S. sanctions, creating a significant deterrent for countries to buy Russian arms. This can help accelerate the transition of Eastern European NATO countries away from their legacy Soviet and Russian systems, which makes many of these NATO members reliant on Russian spare parts.

Third, the sanctions will hit at Russia’s oil and gas sector by targeting individuals and/or entities that make or facilitate large investments in state-run Russian energy projects. These sanctions may help further starve Russia’s energy sector of the investment needed to develop oil and gas resources, especially in the deep waters of the Arctic. Without investment, Russia’s energy sector, and therefore Russia’s economy, will suffer in the years ahead.

Finally, the bill includes the mandatory imposition of sanctions on those who have committed human rights abuses in Russia or in any Russian-occupied territory. Such sanctions send a message not only to Russia but to the rest of the world that the United States has not completely turned a blind eye to human rights abuses despite the Trump administration’s attempts to do so.

This bill could have moved weeks ago. But amidst reports that the Trump administration wanted to water down the legislation, Speaker Ryan allowed a procedural maneuver—the so-called blue slip provision—to demand the Senate make changes or that the bill should originate in the House. This disingenuous move, which lawmakers agree could have been avoided, almost certainly blocks the bill until after President Trump sees Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg next week. It also gave the Trump administration time to work behind the scenes and lobby Congress to weaken the sanctions.

In a period of scant bipartisan legislation, the U.S. Senate has made clear that it does not want to risk leaving Russia relations solely in the hands of Donald Trump. Indeed, the president has shown a constant intention to get along with Putin and ignore his crimes against America and our allies. Putin will no doubt press for the removal of U.S. sanctions and the return of Russian facilities used for espionage within the United States. There are already signs the Trump administration is willing to cave. Trump, after all, sought to get rid of sanctions on Russia related to its seizure of Crimea before being sworn in. Absent Congressional action, Trump can get rid of existing sanctions unilaterally. Trump may even try to claim that his capitulation on sanctions is part of some grand bargain with Russia that will result in military cooperation to go after the Islamic State (ISIS).

President Trump simply cannot be trusted on Russia policy; he continues to ignore his own intelligence agencies and resist blaming Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, all the while his administration continues to explore a “reset” of relations with Russia. It is imperative that Congress act to put in place a strong U.S. policy to Russia.

By failing to forcefully respond to an attack on our democracy, Speaker Ryan, as well as other Republicans in the House, such as Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chair of House Foreign Relations, and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee are in effect serving as Putin’s accomplices. Republicans in the House have blocked the establishment of an independent commission, worked to slow or impede investigations into Russian interference, and have not undertaken any efforts to harden America’s defense against future attack. Now they are blocking sanctions. Such weakness in the face of Putin’s aggression is in stark and worrying contrast to the bipartisan resolve shown by the Senate. If the House fails to act, it will only invite future attacks.

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at American Progress, where he focuses on European security and U.S.-Russia policy. Vikram J. Singh is the Vice President for National Security and International Policy at American Progress. 

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Max Bergmann

Former Senior Fellow

Vikram Singh

Senior Fellow