U.S.-Russian relations become more problematic by the day, in part because a chaotic and disjointed U.S. foreign policy has failed again and again to send Russia a unified message backed by clear goals.
In a much-needed attempt to provide some adult guidance, the Senate recently set partisan differences aside and, on a stunning 98-2 vote, approved what would be a serious and needed check on the presidency. The bill would prevent President Donald Trump from easing sanctions without congressional review. It also would impose broad new penalties at key Russian economic sectors — punishment for blatant interference in the 2016 election.
Final passage is even more vital given the revelation in a Washington Post story that such interference came at the direct order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose specific objectives were to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and help elect Trump. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson acknowledged as much when he recently told Congress that Putin himself had directed the cyberattack on U.S. elections, calling it “a fact, plain and simple.” No one in the Trump administration has contradicted that statement.
Now it is known that this is what helped drive the expulsion of Russian diplomats last December, along with the closure of two Russian compounds. Some in the Obama administration have expressed remorse that penalties were not greater. The failure of that administration to deal adequately with Russia’s brazen actions is regrettable but should not deter the U.S. from sending the strongest possible message now. Russia must be made to know that there will be consequences — severe ones — for meddling in U.S. affairs. It is galling that in light of this news, Putin and other Russian officials have threatened retaliation for the new sanctions.
The Senate bill hit a procedural speed-bump in the House, but the changes needed are technical and should not be used as an excuse to drag out the proceedings. Signing the bill when it hits his desk would help Trump quell concerns that he is overly conciliatory toward Russia.
Perhaps feeling pressure from Congress, the administration produced its own surprise this week when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced sanctions that would freeze assets for a number of Russians, including two government officials, and bar them from doing business with U.S. individuals or companies. In unequivocal language that should be echoed across the administration, Mnuchin said the sanctions would remain until Russia left Crimea and met its obligations under the Minsk agreement, aimed at resolving the conflict in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson still wants “flexibility” on sanctions and, of all things, to work with Russia on cybersecurity. Rumors abound that the administration is still considering returning two U.S. diplomatic compounds to Russian control, and Trump himself has yet to acknowledge Russia’s role in the election that brought him to power.
This administration can start speaking with one voice on Russia by urging speedy action on the Senate bill, signing it promptly and taking seriously the reports of its intelligence community.