What Congress Can Do About Russia

Lawmakers weigh everything from sanctions to aid in response to Ukraine invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends on May 8, 2012 a State Duma meeting in Moscow. Russia's lower house of parliament on May 8 overwhelmingly confirmed former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister after he was nominated by Putin.  
National Journal
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March 3, 2014, 7:40 a.m.

As the crisis in Ukraine con­tin­ues to es­cal­ate and U.S. of­fi­cials is­sue sharp words for Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, some mem­bers of Con­gress are lay­ing down mark­ers for what they want to do next. Here’s a roundup of what they’re say­ing:

New Eco­nom­ic Sanc­tions

Con­gress has long been a fan of passing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions as a way to in­flu­ence U.S. for­eign policy. Sen­at­ors, such as Con­necti­c­ut Demo­crat Chris Murphy and the top Re­pub­lic­an on the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, Bob Cork­er, are call­ing for just that. “The United States and our European al­lies should im­me­di­ately bring to bear all ele­ments of our col­lect­ive eco­nom­ic strength to stop Rus­si­an ad­vances in Ukraine,” Cork­er said in a state­ment. “Con­gress will con­sider tar­geted sanc­tions against Rus­si­an per­sons and en­tit­ies that un­der­mine the sov­er­eignty and ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity of Ukraine.”

Un­like a pro­posed set of sanc­tions against Ir­an, which has re­ceived a lot of push­back from the White House, the ad­min­is­tra­tion hasn’t is­sued any veto threats or harsh words to Con­gress, ur­ging it not to pass sanc­tions against Rus­sia. Seni­or of­fi­cials told The Wall Street Journ­al that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has be­gun dis­cus­sions with Con­gress about po­ten­tial eco­nom­ic and fin­an­cial sanc­tions on spe­cif­ic Rus­si­an com­pan­ies and lead­ers.

Ex­pand­ing the “Mag­nit­sky List”

The new tar­geted sanc­tions that some want could also come in the form of ex­pand­ing a round of sanc­tions already in place. The Mag­nit­sky Act bans U.S. travel and freezes Amer­ic­an bank ac­counts of cer­tain Rus­si­an hu­man-rights vi­ol­at­ors.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., wants the ad­min­is­tra­tion to add more Rus­si­an of­fi­cials to the Mag­nit­sky list. It’s something that Sen. John Mc­Cain also backs.

“Liv­ing in Miami, I have seen in re­cent years the wave of Rus­si­an tour­ists com­ing to our city and state to spend money and buy prop­erty,” Ru­bio said in a Politico Magazine op-ed. “Many are gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials or al­lies whose wealth stems from al­le­gi­ance to Putin, and we should lim­it their abil­ity to travel here.”

Some top-rank­ing mem­bers pushed the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to add ad­di­tion­al names earli­er this year. The ini­tial 2012 pas­sage of Mag­nit­sky spurred a blow­back from Rus­sia in the form of a ban on Amer­ic­ans ad­opt­ing Rus­si­an chil­dren.

In­ter­na­tion­al Ob­serv­ers

Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Chair­man Carl Lev­in said that one of the first steps the U.S. and al­lies could take is to “place a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of in­ter­na­tion­al ob­serv­ers on the ground in Ukraine, if re­ques­ted by the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment.”

“The pres­ence of in­ter­na­tion­al ob­serv­ers on the ground could re­duce the risk that Rus­sia would make a false claim of pro­voc­at­ive acts by Ukraine as an ex­cuse for fur­ther vi­ol­a­tion of Ukrain­i­an sov­er­eignty, and thereby help avoid a con­flict that nobody should want,” the Michigan Demo­crat said in a state­ment.

Aid to Ukraine

Many Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats want to see more aid go­ing to Ukraine right now. The top Demo­crat on the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, Eli­ot En­gel, is push­ing for “a ro­bust in­ter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic as­sist­ance pack­age and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­pos­al to provide U.S. loan guar­an­tees and oth­er as­sist­ance to Ukraine.”

Mem­bers of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee also en­dorsed loan guar­an­tees to Ukraine. Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry has already pledged that the U.S. will provide $1 bil­lion in such loan guar­an­tees, which could come with even more aid after con­sulta­tion with Con­gress.

Don’t Re­spond Mil­it­ar­ily

Un­like in re­cent crises, such as in Syr­ia, no mem­bers are call­ing for the U.S. to use mil­it­ary force in the Rus­sia-Ukraine con­flict.

“We do not seek con­front­a­tion with Pres­id­ent Putin and his gov­ern­ment, but simply [want] to en­sure that Rus­sia abides by its com­mit­ments and ad­heres to core prin­ciples of in­ter­na­tion­al law,” a bi­par­tis­an group of sen­at­ors who sit on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee wrote in a let­ter to Obama.

Even hawk­ish Mc­Cain em­phas­ized, “There is a range of ser­i­ous op­tions at our dis­pos­al at this time without the use of mil­it­ary force.”

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