Congress, Russia, and Sanctions
Congressional interest is growing in enacting sanctions on Russia related to its continuing aggression against Ukraine and its efforts to influence the US presidential election. These would codify and supplement sanctions applied by the Obama administration through executive action.
Congress should proceed in a smart way that maximizes the prospects that sanctions will succeed in achieving their goal. Their goal is not simply to punish Moscow but to effect a change in Kremlin policy.
Unfortunately, congressional sanctions against Russia have a checkered history. The Jackson-Vanik amendment, passed into law in 1974, denied the Soviet Union (and later Russia) permanent normal trade relations status with the United States until Moscow allowed free emigration for religious minorities, particularly Soviet Jews.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government opened the gates. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews left, bound for Israel, the United States, and Europe. In 1994, the Clinton administration found Russia in full compliance with the Jackson-Vanik amendment’s requirements.
Despite that, Russia remained subject to the amendment for another eighteen years. Congress only graduated Russia from Jackson-Vanik and granted it permanent normal trade relations status in 2012—when US business faced the prospect of losing access to certain World Trade Organization benefits. Congress, moreover, wrapped the Jackson-Vanik graduation provisions into the Magnitsky Act, which imposed a new set of sanctions on Russia.
The problem with the Jackson-Vanik narrative is that Russia may not pay much heed to new congressional sanctions. Executive branch sanctions, on the other hand, can be applied, and lifted, quickly. In connection with the Kremlin’s aggression in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration issued four executive orders setting visa and financial sanctions on individuals as well as broader sanctions on the Russian financial, defense, and energy sectors.
President Trump has suggested, however, that he might lift sanctions even if Moscow does nothing. That would abandon significant leverage and break with the sanctions regime imposed by the European Union. Concern about Mr. Trump’s position on sanctions has helped motivate congressional action.
Last week, 10 senators, led by Republicans John McCain and Lindsay Graham and Democrat Ben Cardin, unveiled the Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017. It would codify in law the Obama administration sanctions as well as apply new sanctions, including in response to Russia’s interference in the US presidential election.
Congress should proceed with this legislation, understanding that the objective is not just punishment but to persuade Moscow to change its behavior. As it moves forward, Congress should keep in mind several points.
First, sanctions should be related to particular actions, and the Kremlin should have a clear understanding of what it must do to gain sanctions relief. For example, over the past two years, the West has tied the lifting of those sanctions arising from Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine to Moscow’s full implementation of the 2015 Minsk settlement accord.
Second, set realistic conditions for sanctions relief. The risk of overreach is that, if the Russian government concludes that the political and other costs of compliance far outweigh the benefit of getting the sanctions lifted, there will be no compliance. Another reason to consider setting realistic conditions as regards Ukraine-related sanctions is to maintain consistency with the European Union and a united Western front.
Third, do not double sanctions up. A sanction that is put in place because Russia continues a simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine should not also be applied because of Russian interference in the US election campaign. If Moscow sees that it must meet different sets of conditions in order to get a sanction lifted, the chances that it will meet either set are greatly reduced. Why take an action to meet a condition if the sanction would remain in place for some other reason?
Fourth, include a mechanism for rapid lifting of a sanction if the underlying condition is met. Moscow should have good grounds to believe that, if it takes the desired action, the sanction will quickly come off.
A growing mood on Capitol Hill favors enacting sanctions on Russia, and that appears necessary in light of the president’s view of their efficacy. Congress should, however, tailor its sanctions legislation to strengthen the prospect that sanctions will succeed in effecting a change in Moscow’s policy.
Steven Pifer is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.
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