Trump must send Russia powerful message through tougher actions

Trump must send Russia powerful message through tougher actions
© Getty Images

The Trump administration took several actions last week to implement U.S. sanctions on Russia that Congress passed last year. However, while the Trump administration’s actions met the letter of the law, the way Trump implemented the law is not sufficient to deter Russia from continuing to threaten U.S. democracy at home and U.S. interests abroad. The Trump administration and Congress urgently need to take smart, tailored steps to meet the spirit of the law and actually increase the costs Russia faces.

The law that Congress passed last year, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, required the Trump administration to take several actions by Jan. 29. First, Treasury had to publish a report naming Russian officials and prominent businessmen, including an assessment of which businessmen are close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and which officials and businessmen have been engaged in corruption. The law also required Trump to provide Congress with information on Russian state-owned companies and an assessment of the potential impacts of possible future sanctions on Russia. Finally, the law required Trump to begin implementing new sanctions against Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors.

While the Treasury and State Departments did implement the law, they did so in a way that will almost certainly fail to deter future Russian aggression. For example, the administration did publish a list of the names of 114 Russian officials and 96 Russian oligarchs, but the oligarchs on the list were drawn verbatim from Forbes Magazine’s 2017 list of Russian billionaires. Aside from the names, the information that the law required was put in classified report that the public cannot see. Similarly, while the State Department took rightful credit for using the defense and intelligence sanctions to deter “several billion” dollars worth of Russian arms deals, the State Department did not actually sanction any companies involved in Russian arms deals or publicly identify any specific deals that will be sanctioned if they are completed.

Fortunately, the Trump administration and Congress can strengthen implementation of the law in the coming weeks to send Moscow a more powerful message of American resolve. First, the Trump administration should provide the public with more information about the officials and oligarchs named on the Treasury Department’s public list. The existing list simply does not provide any basis for the public and businesses to evaluate whether an official or oligarch has been involved in corruption, sanctions violations, or other malign activities. As a result, the list puts no meaningful pressure on the individuals who have actually engaged in such activities. Publishing more details would increase pressure on bad actors while clearing the names of those who have done nothing wrong. Where the information shows that an individual named on the list has engaged on corruption or other activities that U.S. sanctions prohibit, the Treasury Department should also take appropriate action to penalize that individual.

Second, the Trump administration needs to provide more detailed guidance how it will implement the sanctions on Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. The State Department is correct to point out that aggressive diplomacy can successfully deter prohibited business, and that preventing a deal from happening in the first place is often a better outcome than sanctioning a company after a deal is complete. But the State Department has not provided enough information for the public and Congress to judge how effective its diplomacy has been. In addition, countries will be tempted to violate the law if the State Department appears hesitant about enforcing it. The administration should move to rapidly impose sanctions on a number of smaller, clear violations of the Section 231 sanctions, to send a deterrent message against future violations.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis MORE also needs to redouble efforts to encourage Europe and other allies to match the American sanctions. Although Europe has maintained the sanctions it first put in place on Russia in 2014, the European Union has not meaningfully increased sanctions since. Trump should press Europe to join in the new U.S. sanctions, especially sanctions against corruption and Russian attacks on democratic institutions, actions that threaten Europe as much as the United States.

Finally, Congress needs to take more aggressive measures to deter Russian attacks on U.S. democracy. CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoIn Afghanistan, give peace a chance — and a lot of time The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Mystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia MORE recently warned that he expected Russia would try to intervene in future U.S. elections. Congress should hold hearings on legislation, such as the recent bipartisan Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines Act introduced by Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump may intervene in Pentagon cloud-computing contract: report Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US Colombian official urges more help for Venezuelan migrants MORE (R-Fla.) and Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOvernight Energy: USDA expected to lose two-thirds of research staff in move west | EPA hails Trump's work on reducing air pollution | Agency eyes reducing inspections of nuclear reactors USDA expected to lose two-thirds of research staff in move to Kansas City Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens MORE (D-Md.), to penalize Russia if it is determined that Russia intervenes in U.S. elections. While the specifics of any such law need to be carefully drafted, Russia needs to understand that it will face harsh penalties if it again attacks American democracy.

The Trump administration’s actions last week were widely criticized by Congress and the press for appearing weak in the face of ongoing Russian aggression. But the administration’s actions should be the start, not the end, of implementing the law. Smart, tough actions in the coming weeks can still send a powerful message to Russia that its ongoing activities that threaten the United States and our allies will, indeed, be met with American resolve.

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 at the U.S. Department of State.

Elizabeth Rosenberg is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served as a senior adviser on terrorist financing and financial crimes at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.