The Trump administration shocked observers by not imposing new Russia-related sanctions by a January 29 deadline. This decision came on the same day when CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Russia would interfere in the 2018 midterms and a Russian jet unsafely intercepted a U.S. plane in international airspace.
The attention to the sanctions milestone shows Washington’s over-emphasis on sanctions in Russia policy. Sanctions are a start, but policymakers in Congress should focus their attention on creating new measures to counter Moscow.
Since its signing into law last summer, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) has dictated the pace of the major U.S. announcements about Russia policy. To the satisfaction of many legislators, it has become the centerpiece of U.S. policy toward Russia.
This focus, however, is hindering the development of a more holistic, and effective, Russia policy. Congress has a lot of work to do to push back on Russian interference in the United States and counter its destabilizing influence abroad.
CAATSA was a precedent-breaking piece of legislation. Russian interference in the 2016 election and fears of a Trump administration plan to reconcile with Moscow convinced Congress to tie Trump’s hands last year. Even small changes in Russia sanctions must now navigate a set of countdowns and approvals on Capitol Hill.
One strategically significant provision of CAATSA mandated sanctions on entities and individuals dealing with Russia’s military and intelligence. By dodging that mandate this week the Trump administration incurred the wrath of Capitol Hill.
There are many reasons that the administration may have done this. Its officials unconvincingly claimed that CAATSA succeeded in deterring transactions that would be targeted and that no further sanctions are needed.
Other explanations make more sense. For example, the countries with greatest potential exposure to the Russian military and intelligence sectors include U.S. partners like Turkey. However, that country is a NATO member and a partner of the United States in the conflict in Syria. Intervening in its arms purchases would therefore have raised diplomatic complications for U.S. policymakers.
CAATSA itself may play a role in the administration’s reticence. In its attempt to both tie the president’s hands and punish Russia for its various trespasses, CAATSA partially undermines its own intent. The new limitations on lifting sanctions may make the administration wary of imposing them in the first place.
Now, the administration’s lack of action on Russian defense and intelligence targets should serve as a turning point. Policymakers should build a holistic strategy toward Russia, focused on fighting kleptocracy, engaging with allies, and protecting U.S. elections.
CAATSA suggests a path ahead. The law required Treasury to compile a list of Russian oligarchs and government officials close to Putin. Though the final unclassified list was underwhelming, the list triggered preemptive moves by Putin to shore up favor with oligarchs and help them protect their wealth abroad. It also signaled oligarchs to hide their money and limit their exposure to U.S. legal jurisdiction to avoid being targeted by potential future sanctions or restrictions.
Now, the U.S. Congress should expand on the list by better tracking the flow and corrosive effect of illicit funds. Such an effort will be particularly important in eastern Europe where Russian kleptocrats have stifled rule of law and enabled corruption. Congress should increase funding for government-funded institutions like the Center for International Private Enterprise that work to track the influence of such “corrosive capital” and look for means to closing the governance loopholes that enable it.
In the United States, Congress should increase transparency through better financial disclosure laws making it harder for oligarchs to launder their money and engage in destabilizing activities in the country.
Congress should also step up to help mend a broken U.S. relationship with Europe. Because it passed CAATSA with little consultation with EU partners, Congress alienated a key constituent. Congress should rebuild its credibility in European capitals by not pushing hard on the CAATSA provisions that most irked the EU, particularly those on natural gas. This more conciliatory approach will diminish the transatlantic friction and increase the likelihood that the EU will continue its aggressive pushback against Russia.
Outside the realm of economic measures, the United States should focus more attention on increased cyber resilience and protect the integrity of future elections. Federal funding to upgrade ballot infrastructure and measures to protect voter registration information would actively improve the safety of the voting system in a bipartisan, apolitical manner. These policies should also take precedence over the unenforceable sanctions-based measures against Russia contained in the DETER Act currently in Congress.
CAATSA has successfully blocked the president from unilaterally lifting sanctions. However, new sanctions may not materialize or live up to lawmakers’ expectations. There are concrete steps Congress can take to fight Russian interference in the United States and oppose its destabilization abroad. Strengthening ties with European allies will ensure the continued effectiveness of current sanctions. Protecting the U.S. voting system will protect the integrity of upcoming elections. Exposing illicit money will roll back Russian influence.
These measures will move the conversation past sanctions and create a new affirmative policy toward Russia.
Edoardo Saravalle is a researcher in the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.