Speaker Ryan, the fate of our policy toward Russia rests in your hands
© Greg Nash

With the nation gripped by political scandal, the most disturbing fact about the 2016 election has fallen by the wayside: Russia executed a full-scale assault on American democracy, and two successive U.S. administrations have failed to respond in a way that might discourage Moscow from another attack.

Yet in a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate stepped up last week and passed a bill by a vote of 98-2 to strengthen U.S. sanctions against Russia. Supported by everyone from Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) to Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Tech: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court fight | Warren backs bid to block AT&T, Time Warner merger | NC county refuses to pay ransom to hackers Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (D-Mass.), the bill is far more than a symbolic jab. If it becomes law, it would fortify America’s response to Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine and persistent threats to European security. And it would undoubtedly mark the most significant act by the United States in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

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We both previously worked on sanctions policy at the State Department and acknowledge that, like many sanctions laws passed by Congress, not every detail of the Senate bill is perfect. But the bill is substantively strong, and the Treasury Department will be able to smooth its rough edges through judicious implementation. On the whole, it is a major achievement for the Senate during an otherwise lackluster legislative session.

 

The path to law, however, remains uncertain. The fate of the bill now rests in the hands of House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE (R-Wisc.), and the Trump administration is already lobbying to kill it or neuter its provisions. Speaker Ryan must not let this happen.

The Senate bill is our best chance — and perhaps our only chance in the foreseeable future — to put U.S. policy toward Russia on strong and stable footing. It is imperative that Speaker Ryan resists White House pressure and allows the House to vote on the bill. (If the bill reaches the floor, it will likely pass overwhelmingly.) Ryan has claimed to support Russia sanctions in the past, and now is his chance to prove it. Anything less would be a betrayal of his responsibility to defend U.S. national security.

The White House doesn’t like the legislation because it requires congressional review before any lifting of Russia sanctions can occur. But there is ample precedent for this provision. In 2015, Congress enacted a law requiring a similar period of review for the Iran nuclear deal — a law that Ryan supported. It is also a mistake to view this provision as just a poke at President Trump. Regardless of the party or person in the White House, it serves American interests for there to be clarity about the conditions under which Russia sanctions can be eased.

When the U.S. and Europe developed the Russia sanctions regime in 2014, there was much doubt about its staying power. Owing to the size of Russia’s economy, the sanctions required Western businesses to make greater sacrifices than did measures imposed on smaller economies like those of Iran or North Korea. Fortunately, the sanctions have held, costing Russia tens of billions of dollars in government expenditures and lost growth.

However, instead of working in good faith to meet the West’s conditions for lifting sanctions — namely, implementing the Minsk peace accords and respecting Ukraine’s international borders — Moscow has sought to have its cake and eat it too. The Kremlin has prolonged its aggression in Ukraine while attempting to free itself from sanctions by bribery, blackmail, and subterfuge. Moscow has also tried to develop workarounds such as turning to companies in Asia for expertise and financing it can no longer get in the U.S. or Europe.

By locking in current sanctions until Russia actually reverses its aggression, the Senate bill sends a clear message to Moscow that there is only one path out of the cold. The bill sends an equally important message to companies around the world that Russia will remain a risky business partner for as long as the Kremlin challenges fundamental U.S. values and interests.

In addition to codifying existing sanctions, the bill imposes tough new measures tied specifically to Moscow’s actions last year. The strongest penalties are appropriately directed at Russia’s intelligence agencies and defense sector, which have intervened not only in U.S. elections, but in elections in France and eastern Europe as well. Enforced aggressively, these sanctions are potent enough to make Moscow think twice before attacking American democracy again.

If the White House fails to stop the bill entirely, it still might succeed in diluting it. The House is reportedly exploring ways to do just that.

But a watered-down law that imposes weak and symbolic sanctions on Russia would be worse than no law at all. If the House passes a watered-down version of the bill — the likeliest outcome if the Senate version is farmed out for revisions to House committees — it would squander our best chance to respond forcefully to Russia’s assault on the 2016 election. And it would allow lawmakers to pat themselves on the back for being “tough” on Russia while sending the opposite message to the Kremlin: we may scold you for attacking our democracy, but you can get away with it scot-free.

America’s adversaries don’t stop plotting when Washington is stifled by political dysfunction. It would be a pity if we miss this chance to show Moscow and the world that, politics aside, the U.S. government will stand up to defend our national security. Speaker Ryan must allow a vote on the Russia sanctions bill without delay.

Edward Fishman is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously served at the State Department as a member of Secretary John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLobbying world Kerry: Trump not pursuing 'smart' or 'clever' plan on North Korea Tillerson will not send high-ranking delegation to India with Ivanka Trump: report MORE’s policy planning staff, where he led work on economic sanctions and strategic planning for Europe and Eurasia.

Peter Harrell is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.


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