Lawmakers press Obama for tougher action against Russia

In the first House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing since the invasion of Crimea, lawmakers from both parties on Thursday upped the pressure on the Obama administration to take a tougher stance against Russia.

Members of the panel welcomed the White House's decision to ban visas and freeze the assets of people involved in the Crimean takeover. But they urged the administration to consider a slew of stronger options, from a U.N. resolution to inviting Ukraine into NATO to declaring Russian maneuvers an act of war.

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“I strongly encourage the administration to increase efforts to isolate Russia diplomatically,” Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said. “There is much that should be done, such as introducing a resolution at the U.N. Security Council that condemns Russian aggression, isolating Moscow.”

Administration officials responded cautiously and avoided committing the administration to any particular course of action.

So far, no casualties have been reported in Crimea, and the administration is keenly intent on diffusing the situation without any bloodshed.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the panel's immediate past chairwoman, said she was circulating a "Dear Colleague" letter demanding the administration add more names to the list of Russian human rights violators targeted by the Magnitsky Act. The State Department only included 18 names on its list made public last year, with several others kept confidential.

“Adding names to the Magnitsky List will make these sanctions permanent, rather than an Executive Order that the president can rescind,” she said. “Is the administration considering adding more names of Russian officials … or is it simply a historical document for academics to ponder?”

The administration is “actively considering adding names to the Magnitsky list,” answered Eric Rubin, the deputy assistant secretary of State for Europe.

And Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the Middle East panel, urged the administration to consider going after Russian individuals and entities involved in supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Rubin said he'd take the request to higher-ups.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a tough critic of Obama's foreign policy, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, sought to get the administration to label the Russia moves an “act of war.”

“I think we should call it what it is — it's pretty clear this is an act of war against another nation,” McCaul said. “I don't know if these sanctions will stop that.”

Rubin said Russia's moves constituted a “violation of international law” and left it at that.

Democrats Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) and Bill Keating (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Europe subpanel, urged the administration to welcome Ukraine into NATO, if the country's new leaders want to go that route. Russia views NATO membership of its former Soviet satellites as a direct threat, and Europe, particularly Germany, has so far balked at admitting Georgia as a member following its 2008 war with Russia.

“As a matter of basic principle, NATO is an open alliance,” Rubin said. 

And Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the full committee, indicated he favored further sanctions. He said Wednesday that helping Ukraine was his top priority.

“Russia also must understand that there are consequences for its aggression,” he said. “I think we should consider a range of sanctions — including visa bans, freezing assets, and banking sanctions — so that President Putin understands that this will not be business as usual.”

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