U.S. lawmakers say they're increasingly frustrated with Vladimir Putin and are demanding that President Obama crack down on Russia following a slew of recent spats with the United States.
The country over the past two weeks has sentenced Putin's biggest critic to five years in prison and posthumously convicted a dead whistle-blower championed by Congress. To top it off, the Kremlin is now considering asylum for NSA leaker Edward Snowden, a move lawmakers warn would bring U.S.-Russian relations to a post-Cold War low.
Schumer's co-sponsor on the resolution, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), made international headlines earlier this week when he told The Hill that Obama should consider pulling out of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi if Snowden gets asylum.
“I would just send the Russians the most unequivocal signal I could send them,” Graham said when asked about the possibility of a boycott. “It might help, because what they’re doing is outrageous.”
The feeling is bicameral.
“I'm absolutely frustrated with Russia,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “Every day the human rights situation continues to get worse.”
McGovern is the House author of legislation targeting alleged Russian human-rights offenders that was named after Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption whistle-blower who died in police custody. McGovern urged the administration to add higher-ups in the Putin government to the list of people banned from traveling to the United States or holding assets in the country.
“We gave the administration a very effective tool – they need to use it,” McGovern told The Hill. “Now isn't the time to be quiet, now is the time to speak up about what's going on over there.”
“We haven't been pushing them that hard, and they've been no help to us on Syria. It is important that we push back, and if we don't, who will? Nobody.”
The White House has indicated that President Obama may cancel a planned bilateral summit in Moscow ahead of the G-20 summit if Snowden gets asylum. McGovern said that would be good move.
“Unless he's going to go to Moscow to deliver a very stern message, I don't see the point,” he said. “Why build Putin up at a time quite frankly when the entire world should be criticizing him?”
The administration is already furious at Putin for his continued support for Syria's Bashar Assad but wants to continue cooperating with Russia on counter-terrorism, Iran's nuclear weapons program and other priorities.
Rep. William Keating (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel on Europe, said the administration was in a tough spot. He urged additional pressure on Putin but not through steps that could harm U.S. interests, such as skipping the Olympics or the G-20.
“They like to poke us in the eye,” Keating said. “And in some respects they're doing that here.”
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, called Snowden and Syria “aggravating factors” in an already tense relationship.
“Russia is an important player on the world stage,” Smith said. “We need to find things we have in common and find ways to work together.”
Some Republicans lay the blame squarely on Obama.
“This president believed that if Russia got attention from him that it would change their behavior. Clearly it has not,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and frequent critic of the Obama administration’s missile defense strategy. “They are antagonistic to the United States and U.S. policies and they need to be treated as such.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs subpanel on human rights, said Obama's “reset” with Russia had been an “unmitigated disaster.” He said the president should press Russia much harder on human rights, while paying attention to their valid concerns, such as Russian officials' contention that 19 adopted Russians have died in U.S. care over the past 20 years.
“It wasn't rosy under Bush, but there was a mutual understanding and a mutual respect between Bush and Putin,” Smith said. “And now to even hint that he would cancel the meeting is sophomoric on behalf of the president, if he goes that route. You meet with people you disagree with and you try to find some common ground and keep those lines of communication open.”
At least one lawmakers thinks things are actually getting better under Putin.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Europe subpanel and a defender of Russia's tough response to radical Islam, said the demonstrations, opposition parties and critical media he sees in his visits to the country weren't allowed until recently.
“There certainly is a lot of antagonism here [in Congress],” he said. “I have my old friends who talk about Putin as if he's [Leonid] Brezhnev, and it just ain't so.”
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