American foreign policy toward Russia is stuck in a seemingly endless pattern of doing the same thing over and over again with an unsatisfactory result, but expecting a different outcome each time. The latest bipartisan bill, called the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, championed by six U.S. senators fits this pattern.
One of its sponsors, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, readily admits that the “current sanctions regime has failed to deter Russia from meddling in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.” But he and five leading Democrats and Republicans are piling on more sanctions to make Russia change its policies. The bill may be good politics in an election year, but it is just as unlikely to accomplish its stated goal as the long list of its predecessors that have not worked.
Take the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the Magnitsky Act, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, and sanctions related to the illegal annexation of Crimea. What do all of these legislative and executive actions have in common? All were introduced to make Russia stop doing something, whether it is violating the rights of its citizens, returning Crimea to Ukraine, and interfering in our elections.
They all failed. The Soviet government did not stop violating the rights of its citizens until the reforms of “perestroika” under Mikhail Gorbachev restored basic freedoms to Soviet citizens. The Magnitsky Act intended to punish and deter violations of human rights in Russia under Vladimir Putin and has hardly succeeded. The political climate in Russia has gotten worse since the law passed in 2012. Crimea is still in Russian hands, Moscow continues to violate sovereignty, and there is no end in sight to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Graham himself has admitted that the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act has failed.
The new bill, if it passes Congress in the short amount of time left in this legislative session, is destined to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors. The combination of so many aspects of our global migration to the online domain and poor cyberdefenses means that our elections will be threatened not just by Russia, but by many other actors, both foreign and domestic. Focusing on Russia is misleading and potentially harmful, for the problem requires a comprehensive solution, not just a “whack a mole” type campaign against one country or another.
Some aspects of the bill make one admire the sense of humor of its drafters. The bill calls for a report, presumably from the intelligence community, on the “net worth and assets of Vladimir Putin.” This is coming at a time when our own president refuses to come clean about his finances. If this attempt to name and shame Putin is supposed to expose him to the wrath of his impoverished citizens and highlight corruption in Russia, it is no more likely to achieve the desired effect than attempts to get Donald Trump> to release his financial data. Russians have been subjected to many reports about Kremlin corruption and know full well that their leader lives in luxury. That is what Russian leaders do. Power and money go together in Russia, and its citizens know that.
Moreover, the proposed sanctions bill could actually benefit Putin. The Kremlin has been using Western sanctions in its propaganda to convince Russians that the West is their enemy and that the nation has to unite around its leadership in this hour of confrontation. The proposed bill intends to impose “crushing” sanctions on Russia, which is exactly what Putin needs at a time when his popularity has been slipping.
Sanctions on his associates and Russian companies do not produce the desired effects, and sometimes even backfire. The sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the aluminum company of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska caused a 30 percent spike in the price of the metal and threatened global supply chains. It was a prime example of sanctions leading to unintended consequences while accomplishing nothing. The administration is reportedly now reconsidering those sanctions.
Instead of more “crushing” sanctions bills, we need a crash effort in the near term to boost our cyberdefenses and resilience of our electoral systems to protect them from interference, not just Russian, but other foreign and domestic meddling. In the long term, as our adversarial relationships with Moscow is likely here to stay, the we need to devote more resources to understanding the drivers of Russian policy, Kremlin priorities and vulnerabilities, and what is likely to deter it.
Our ability to understand Russia has unfortunately been a victim of our preoccupation with China, North Korea, and the Middle East. The Russia challenge is here to stay, and we need to get serious about it. Doing more of what has not worked in the past will get us nowhere.