A US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account
This month’s crackdown in Moscow underscores the Kremlin’s message to all potential sources of dissent: Vladimir Putin is prepared to ruthlessly pursue his opponents, both at home and abroad. Together with the suspected poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, they are just the latest data points in a pattern of behavior. It includes election interference, hack-and-leak operations, murder on foreign soil (including the 2018 near fatal poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England) and other dark arts that are playing a greater role in Russia’s increasingly brazen foreign and domestic policies.
The Trump administration and Boris Johnson’s new government in the United Kingdom must waste no time in condemning the Kremlin’s latest bout of political violence. Even faced with looming Brexit and the erratic swings of U.S. politics, the UK and U.S. must recall the spirit of action that they took in joining with over two dozen European countries and Canada to expel more than 150 Russian spies and diplomats after the chemical attack against Skripal.
But the U.S. and UK can – and must – do more. Johnson’s vision of a Global Britain starts with a U.S.-UK trade deal—one that creates a new compact for the special relationship rooted in openness, fairness and law. John Bolton’s London trip this week shows that the U.S. is ready to work toward that aim. In doing so, the Trump administration and Johnson government – together with Congress – should guarantee that the U.S.-UK free trade Agreement represents a new Euro-Atlantic standard that adds our combined economic throw weight to fight grey aggression, authoritarianism and the ooze of corruption emanating from kleptocratic states like Russia.
Authoritarianism is a house of cards built on brittle systems of patronage. Families and friends are often the vehicles for moving money outside Russia. Think Putin’s friend, Sergei Roldugin – the inexplicable billionaire cellist – exposed in the Panama Papers. While Putin strives to generate the appearance of an omnipotent czar, which is often blindly accepted in the West, the truth is that his authoritarian system of governance fundamentally depends on the loyalty of his cronies. In exchange for loyalty, these cronies are allowed to prosper and gain entrée in the West, all bankrolled by the blood money of graft, autocracy and aggression from Idlib to Salisbury to the Donbas. Take away either end of that equation and the foundation of Putin’s regime begins to corrode.
If the U.S. and UK want a free trade agreement that reflects the special relationship at its best, they can do so by employing most powerful weapon free democracies have—access to our economies and our way of life. One place to start would be codifying some elements of the bipartisan bill Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) legislation in a U.S.-UK FTA.
For instance, CAATSA contains a provision that sanctions must be applied to people facilitating “a significant transaction, including deceptive or structured transactions” of any person subject to sanctions as well as “any spouse, child or sibling” of a sanctioned individual. In plain English, it mandates that family members and associates who profit from the dirty money of those sanctioned feel the pain of frozen assets and denied visas. The provision authored by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) hangs over Russia’s elite like a sword of Damocles. By including it in trade negotiations, the U.S. and UK would advance a coordinated sanctions structure that signals more broadly that Anglo-American trade is not of, by and for Putin’s corrupt oligarchs and those who imitate them around the world.
The benefits of such action are threefold.
First, it provides a tool of proportional response. The Kremlin tolerates the expulsion of its diplomats. Its toadies are even willing to stomach the stigma of sanctions and travel bans to the West. Most of the Kremlin-linked oligarchs and their families, however, are likely a different story.
Second, it is targeted. The measure would maximize the pain on those responsible for denying Russia its rightful place as an open, peaceful, European country while avoiding the other victims of Kremlin policies, the Russian people, who have seen a 10 percent drop in household income in jst the past four years.
Third, the Russian people would be on the side of the UK and U.S., much as they subtly supported the Magnitsky Act, which targeted corrupt Russian officials and human rights violators. Ordinary Russians have no sympathy for the relatives of the country’s elite. Their respect for Putin, however misguided, does not transfer to the trophy wives, princelings and mafia princesses who are at once the mules and chief beneficiaries of the Kremlin’s plunder.
The U.S. and UK together have the leverage to hit back at the Kremlin for its increasingly dangerous behavior. And given the concentration of Russian oligarchic families in London and their attachment to that city, the UK in particular possesses the power to undercut the critical relationship between Putin and his cronies. The U.S.-UK trade agreement is a one-shot opportunity to reset with the world’s largest financial nexus on terms that favor democracy, good governance and human rights. We cannot pass it up.
Tyson Barker is director and fellow at the Aspen Institute Germany and senior advisor to the assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. Daniel P. Vajdich is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former advisor to presidenetial candidates Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Mitt Romney.