June 15, 2017

The Senate takes charge

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Ukrainian Americans – and many others, we’re sure – breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday, June 14, when the Senate voted overwhelmingly, 97 to 2, for a measure that would not only increase sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and Syria, and its interference in U.S. elections, but also require a congressional review if sanctions are lifted or scaled back.

The bipartisan vote does ease some of the concern about the Trump administration’s apparent willingness to give Russia a pass on its destabilizing actions around the globe and here in the U.S. Notably, though others in his administration have on occasion said the right things with regard to Russia, President Donald Trump himself has yet to utter words critical of Russia. It seems he prefers to believe the words of the Russian president over those of his own intelligence community.

Readers will recall that, at first, the Kremlin said reports about interference in the U.S. elections were “laughable nonsense.” Then, Vladimir Putin actually admitted that Russian hackers might have been involved, but said they were simply citizens with “patriotic leanings” who had acted independently of the Russian government. (We’d call that implausible deniability.) Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials say the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, conducted the cyberattacks. Our readers will also recall Mr. Putin’s similar denials that Russian troops were in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Remember the “little green men” who suddenly appeared in Crimea?

It is great news that the Senate decided to step in now instead of waiting, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had suggested, to give the administration “the flexibility to turn the heat up when we need to, but also to ensure that we have the ability to maintain a constructive dialogue.” Sen. Bob Corker (R- Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, earlier had been willing to give Mr. Tillerson some time to “change the trajectory of our relationship with Russia,” but, as The Washington Post reported, his patience was wearing thin.

In the meantime, there were several versions of the Russia sanctions bills in the Senate. Among the key players, besides Sen. Corker, were Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). On June 12 it was announced that bipartisan agreement had been reached on an amendment to a bill on Iran sanctions. On June 14 the amendment was passed. On June 15, the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act, with the Russia sanctions amendment attached, was passed 98-2.

The Washington Post called the vote on the amendment “a sharp rebuke to President Trump’s posture vis-à-vis Russia and his resistance to the intelligence community’s assessment that the country was behind efforts to influence the election he won.” It added: “Trump has repeatedly and openly doubted the veracity of the assessment. And while his administration has not ordered a rollback of any existing sanction, lawmakers have been concerned about his conciliatory, and at times even forgiving, rhetoric about Russia…”

Edward Fishman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council (and a former member of the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff and the State Department’s Office of Sanctions Policy during the Obama administration), gave this assessment: “If the bill becomes law, it would mark the most significant step taken by Congress on Russia policy in recent history. Though not perfect, the bill would substantially strengthen the West’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Russia on the conflict in Ukraine and send a strong message to Moscow that efforts to undermine U.S. elections carry costly consequences. …Even if Trump persists in his pro-Russia rhetoric, the bill will provide much-needed clarity to U.S. policy toward Russia. It will end worried speculation about the White House’s intentions on sanctions, and it will indicate once and for all that America remains committed to combating Russian aggression. That the U.S. Senate was able to pass such a significant piece of legislation during a time of intense partisan division is no small achievement.”

To be sure, several more steps are required before the bill becomes law. For starters, the House of Representatives must pass it. The White House might oppose it, which could influence some House Republicans. But Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said he will back it. And a veto-proof majority of senators supports the bill.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

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