Congress looks for Putin pressure points

Lawmakers in both parties are looking for new pressure points to use against Russian President Vladimir Putin amid frustration over the heavy toll from the war in Ukraine. 

U.S. and international sanctions have leveled the Russian economy but haven’t stopped the bombardment of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities — nor the slaughter of innocent civilians. 

Congress is expected to move ahead this week with legislation to revoke Russia’s “most favored nation” trade status, something the Biden administration cannot do by itself. 

It has yet to be decided whether that bill will include a ban on Russian oil imports, something President Biden has already announced and can be done through his executive authority.  

“We’re working on an agreement that the Senate can pass quickly,” said a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).  

Those moves will raise the economic pressure on Moscow, though they seem unlikely to dramatically change the situation in Ukraine. 

Some Republican senators are pushing for Biden and other NATO leaders to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine, while a few are privately calling for the deployment of more sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Russian bombers flying in Ukrainian airspace.  

The Biden administration has ruled out that step, which would require the U.S. and NATO to enforce the no-fly zone by shooting Russian jets out of the sky. Lawmakers in both parties have agreed that could move the U.S. directly into a war with a nuclear-armed Russia.

Ukraine’s leaders are asking for more, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will personally make his case to Congress during a virtual address on Wednesday morning. 

Zelensky pressed Biden during a call Monday to do more to cut Russia off from the global economy and to expand the number of Russian oligarchs close to Putin to target with additional sanctions.  

GOP senators have walked a fine line politically. 

They want to appear to be pushing Biden to move more aggressively without going too far and seeming reckless. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) felt immediate political blowback last week when he suggested assassinating Putin.  

Lawmakers want to move Soviet-era S-300 defense systems into combat zones, which would allow Ukrainian forces to engage Russian jets from a much greater distance and at higher altitudes. The Stinger surface-to-air missiles the U.S. continues to deliver to Ukraine have an effective range of 15,000 feet, making them less effective against high-flying attack planes.  

There’s also bipartisan Senate support for facilitating the transfer of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian air force, a proposal the Biden administration initially endorsed but then reversed course on after Pentagon officials raised concerns about the logistics of moving them through a NATO base in Germany.

Both proposals — aiding the transfer of S-300 defense systems and MiG-29s — face problems politically because they would involve moving major weapons from former Soviet bloc NATO allies, like Poland, into Ukraine and could serve as a pretext for Putin to attack those allies.  

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) on Monday said additional military assistance could be added to the trade sanctions package congressional leaders are looking to pass before the end of the month.  

“Any ideas out there that are good that make it more difficult for Russia economically or from a security standpoint I think are going to get fair consideration, because we just have people on both sides who want to do everything we can,” he said.  

“I would say that anything, weaponry that they’re asking for that would help them knock out Russian artillery, short of us being in the fly zone, is something that I think could get a lot of support,” he added.  

A Senate aide familiar with internal discussions said senators will also call for the Biden administration and NATO allies to expand sanctions on Russia’s energy sector by targeting natural gas sales to Europe.

“Europe is continuing to purchase Russian natural gas as electricity and energy prices are sky-high. This is a big boon to Russia to be able to sell gas at near capacity at these prices,” the aide said.  

Senators are looking at expanding the circle of Russian oligarchs allied with Putin to hit with personal sanctions, a proposal that several senators endorsed Monday.  

“The sanctions package is a tough one and if there’s anything else that’s needed to go after the oligarch or to get tougher with Putin and Russia, I’m all on board,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Another tricky question is how much political pressure to exert on China not to undermine U.S. and European sanctions on Russia.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan warned Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi during a meeting in Rome Monday that the Biden administration would back economic sanctions against China if it helps Putin evade Western sanctions.

A White House official later described the seven-hour meeting as “intense.”

Senators say they may consider extending sanctions to China if it supplies military equipment to Russia to make up for losses in heavy fighting around Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has claimed more than 350 destroyed Russian tanks, while the monitoring group Oryx put the number last week at fewer than 200.

“The United States has warned China over helping Russia evade Western sanctions and over a possible lend lease program — both activities could be subject to primary or secondary sanctions regimes from the United States,” said a Senate aide.

But the major question is what types of penalties could be placed on China without affecting the U.S. economy, which is heavily dependent on Chinese imports and is already suffering from a widespread rise in prices because of the supply chain backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“China ought to think twice about this. It’s developing its own reputation in the world. And if they’re going to stand by in terms of Putin and his naked, barbaric invasion of that country, it’s not a good place to be in history,” Durbin told reporters Monday.

Tags Chuck Schumer Congress Dick Durbin invasion Jake Sullivan Joe Biden John Thune Lindsey Graham Russia sanctions Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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