Thursday last week I moderated a panel on Capitol Hill with the Ambassadors from Ukraine, Czech Republic, Georgia and Lithuania titled: European Ambassadors to Discuss “Russian Aggression: Exploring the Implications of Putin’s Annexation of Crimea”.
The discussion was co-hosted by the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies and the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America.
I’ll post a panel recap soon. The Ambassadors were frank and shared many excellent ideas about the matter involving LNG exports, NATO, the US/EU end game, and much more. Thank you to the Catholic University for helping showcase this very important issue as well as a special thanks to Dr. Stephen Schneck, the Very Rev. Mark Morozowich, the students that attended, as well as the rest of the CUA team for helping put this event together.
In the meantime, I’d like to share with you additional views about proposed economic sanctions and other responses that have been discussed the past few days in this town:
The countries comprising the G-7 agreed this week to postpone additional sanctions against Russia unless Putin further destabilizes Ukraine or takes actions against other neighboring countries. This approach is absurd and has the potential to further shift the balance of power in Russia’s favor. The situation can still be remedied, if the U.S. acts quickly and decisively.
Goals must be clearly understood and defined if sanctions are to succeed. Altering or nuancing objectives once sanctions are applied only hurts U.S. interests and standing. Take the Iran nuclear deal. Despite long-standing policy and rhetoric that the objective is to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, the U.S. and the other P5+1 appear content with limiting, reducing some of the regime’s activities and keeping Tehran at the negotiating table. These lowered expectations and conditions not only benefit Iran but also serve as a clear indicator for the Kremlin on how to effectively manipulate the West.
The U.S. must be clear on its end game regarding Russian actions. Does it seek to compel Moscow to reverse course—just in Ukraine or more broadly? Is the goal of sanctions simply to contain Russian occupation to parts of Ukraine (and Georgia for that matter)? Is it to deter further territorial infringements? Is the U.S. simply looking at symbolic accountability? Not only is clarity of purpose vital in achieving the desired objectives concerning Putin, it is vital in reassuring European allies about long-term U.S. commitment to common security and to the defense of freedom and democracy.
Ambassadors from countries directly affected by Russian aggression reinforced this point during a panel discussion held recently on Capitol Hill. While appreciative of U.S. efforts, they raised concerns about the U.S. and international community’s misreading of Putin, his intentions, and strategy and surprise when he invaded parts of Georgia in 2008 and now Crimea.
Another critical element for a successful U.S. or Western response if immediate application of comprehensive sanctions on target: Moscow. History has shown that limited sanctions applied incrementally are insufficient to compel a reversal or change in behavior when a wide disparity exists between the crime and the punishment. Such an approach will fail in response to Russian troops occupying sovereign territory and taking control of military bases. Gradual implementation of limited measures will also fail to deter Moscow from undermining or directing its aggression against other parts of Ukraine, Moldova or others.
This piecemeal approach to sanctions enables target economies to adjust to the disruptions in commercial and financial dealings. Non-state actors, such as Russian individuals and entities designated by the U.S. and the European Union, are even more nimble and will find escape valves to alleviate any temporary pressure placed upon them by newly enacted restrictions. Sanctions must target the totality of the Kremlin and Putin apparatchik as well as multiple sectors of the Russian economy.
Context is also critical to the success of sanctions and the overarching approach to Russia. A number of policy errors come to mind that severely handicap current efforts, as well as future options being considered. There was the feeble American and European response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia; the shift in U.S. missile defense commitments for Eastern Europe; the lifting of sanctions on Russian entities assisting Iran’s nuclear program and ensuing U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement (“123 agreement”); the support for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization and subsequent permanent trade status with the U.S.; the retreat concerning Syria’s chemical weapons use; and the neglect of developments in Ukraine until the threat to U.S. interests and allies had fully materialized.
Any legislative proposal or Executive action should take this backdrop into consideration and seek to correct past errors. Sanctions can therefore take many forms.
For example, there’s the U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement. On September 8, 2008, President Bush notified Congress that he was rescinding his earlier determination allowing the U.S.-Russia 123 Agreement to go forward. He deemed “actions by the Government of the Russian Federation incompatible with peaceful relations with its sovereign and democratic neighbor, Georgia” and constituting an unreasonable risk to the common defense and security. President Obama resubmitted the agreement in 2010 and it went into effect that same year. However, the situation has changed.
Putin’s actions against Ukraine clearly pose a threat to regional security, our interests and allies. They violate the conditions for a bilateral nuclear agreement with the U.S. As a result, the U.S. should suspend or repeal the 123 with Russia. If concerns exist about potential negative impact on the U.S. nuclear industry, these can be addressed by engaging Eastern European allies who suspend agreements with Russian companies previously slated to build nuclear reactors in their countries.
Moscow also violated the Budapest Memorandum regarding threats or use of force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity or political independence. The U.S. and other G-7 countries must strengthen security assurances for Ukraine and ensure continued compliance with nonproliferation commitments under the Memorandum.
The U.S. must learn from its mistakes or it will perpetuate them and damage U.S. and allied interests in the process.
The Administration should immediately come clean to Congress on all Putin-era actions covered under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA). It should justify any and all determinations against the imposition of sanctions under the law and engage in regular consultations on INKSNA enforcement. Moscow should also be held accountable for its stated commitment to expanding Iran’s nuclear capabilities and its use of multilateral talks on Iran to blackmail the West into a feeble or limited response to Russian actions in Crimea.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) should carefully review transactions involving Russia with a view toward blocking any that would make the U.S. vulnerable to Moscow. ARMZ, the mining arm of Rosatom, was allowed to take over Uranium One, including its American subsidiary. The then Ranking Members of the House Committees on Financial Services, Homeland Security, and Armed Services warned in an October 2010 letter to Cabinet officials who sit on CFIUS: “Signing over control of this U.S. uranium processing facility to the Russian government unnecessarily jeopardizes U.S. security interests.” CFIUS proceeded to approve the sale over Congressional objections and Moscow gained significant control over U.S. national uranium extraction capabilities.
For those looking at the current divide as a return to the Cold War, remember that the battle between freedom and oppression extended well beyond the European landscape—a chapter of history that Putin is seeking to replicate, hoping to change the outcome to one where Russia is the victor. A cursory review of recent news reports on Russian activities in Latin America alone seems to confirm this strategy.
There are Russian missiles reportedly positioned in Venezuela; Russian spy ships have docked in Cuba; and bilateral intelligence and military cooperation between these rogues is expanding. The Russian Defense Minister recently announced that Moscow plans to establish permanent military bases in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, while pressing ahead on significant arms sales to the region.
Fulsome countermeasures to Russian actions must therefore extend beyond Putin and his immediate inner circle and cover Russia’s global axis. For example, immediate, rigorous sanctions targeting the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and perhaps all ALBA nations, will not only help pro-democracy forces in our Hemisphere, it could deny Moscow a potential base of operations and leverage against the U.S.
An effective strategy must also include proactive support for allies. Approving an aid package and loan guarantees for Ukraine are positive steps and there are many U.S. programs that are wasteful or fail to advance U.S. priorities that could serve to offset the costs of economic support to friends in need. The U.S. must fortify friendly democratic governments in other ways as well, including by: (1) looking to natural gas exports to Europe as a wedge against Moscow and means of enhancing energy security for vulnerable partners and (2) providing much needed and appreciated military and intelligence assistance.
The U.S. must act swiftly and decisively in projecting power. It must inspire confidence in American resolve and commitments. It is the only way to prevent a shift in the global strategic calculus in favor of Russia and other rogue nations.
Yleem D.S. Poblete, PhD is former Chief of Staff of the Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, and a Fellow at The Catholic University of America. She was responsible for numerous sanctions bills enacted into law during her close to 20 years on the Committee.