Barrasso is right: Congress must carefully weigh sanctions against Russia

Before the pandemic consumed Congress’ attention it was considering a bill called Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, or DASKA. Its intent is to punish Russia and Vladimir Putin for its objectionable actions, including its attempted interference with U.S. elections, the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and its overt support of Venezuela’s illegally elected president Nicolas Maduro.

President Trump has tried to maintain a detente with Putin despite his perfidy in order to get help in his efforts to isolate China, a more powerful and — to the president — more dangerous foe. However, some members of Congress do not share his geostrategic perspective, and late last year the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed DASKA. The full Senate will consider it whenever the body returns to regular order.

While few dispute the need for the U.S. to punish untoward Russian behavior, some politicians objected to this legislation. Their point is that while our government is right to take a hard stance against the Kremlin, it should do so within a long-term strategy that keeps our country engaged at least to some degree with the country’s business sector, and not punish U.S. businesses doing work overseas.

In its current form, Daska does not achieve those goals.

The bill would impose sanctions on several of the country’s key political officials — including Vladimir Putin, his family, and close associates — as well as on Russian banks, its cyber sector, its LNG projects to western Europe, and any energy projects its companies are engaged in, whether domestically or abroad.

Sanctions should target specific objectives, focus on future behavior, and limit ancillary damage. However, DASKA’s sanctions are indiscriminate and inflexible, and there is little reason to believe they will change Russia’s behavior.

What’s more, the bill could even leave it in an even more advantageous economic position. For instance, the legislation would halt U.S. participation in projects in which a Russia company is engaged anywhere in the world. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warns that these sanctions could end U.S. participation in over 100 projects around the world, forcing U.S. companies to abandon these investments or sell them at deeply discounted prices while costing our country jobs.

Such an outcome would not only needlessly punish our own citizens but also undermine popular support for our country’s broader attempts to quarantine Russia for its behavior, a point that’s been made by Sen. John Barrasso. 

Congress needs to fix DASKA to crack down on the Kremlin while avoiding collateral damage to U.S. companies operating abroad. If these sanctions are too severe, they could (counterproductively) lead to a stronger partnership between Russia and China. Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats recently warned that the countries are more aligned today than at any point in the last 60 years.

Whatever nefarious goals Putin may have for the future, Russian businesses would doubtlessly rather work with American ones than Chinese ones, and we should prefer that as well — constructive commercial engagement can provide us with other levers of influence in the country.

Russia’s behavior has been despicable and sensible diplomacy calls for them to be punished, and we have done precisely this: for instance, we closed down its U.S. Trade Mission and sanctioned several top political and business leaders. However, taking a giant step towards economic disengagement makes little geopolitical sense.

Jared Whitley is a longtime DC-politico currently based in Utah.


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