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Senators Seek To Pass Russia Sanctions Bill To Deter Election Interference Before End Of Year


Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollene said he eas among members of the upper house of Congress who are pushing to get the sanction bill into the National Defense Authorization Act. (file photo)
Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollene said he eas among members of the upper house of Congress who are pushing to get the sanction bill into the National Defense Authorization Act. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Senators are seeking to pass a bipartisan bill before the end of the year that would enable the imposition of new sanctions on Russia if it interferes in U.S. elections.

Senator Chris Van Hollen (Democrat-Maryland) said on November 21 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that he is among members of the upper house of Congress who are pushing to get the sanction bill into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Van Hollen, who sits on various legislative committees that deal with sanctions, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) was preventing another legislative initiative -- the Defending Elections From Threats By Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act from coming to a Senate floor vote.

Consequently, members are working to insert the sanctions package into the NDAA, which is nearly always approved at the end of the year.

"These conversations were going on last night," Van Hollen said about talks to get the bill into the NDAA.

U.S. intelligence agencies as well as former Special Counsel Robert Mueller determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election among other things by hacking into servers and using social media to create divisions in society.

Congress in 2017 passed with overwhelming bipartisan support the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which in part imposed sanctions on Russia for its alleged interference in the election.

U.S. President Donald Trump has "failed to impose" many of the CAATSA sanctions, Van Hollen said.

The DETER Act, which was introduced by Van Hollen and Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida), aims to discourage Russia from interfering again by automatically imposing "painful" sanctions on Russia’s energy, banking, and defense industries within 30 days after the director of National Intelligence determines that the Kremlin meddled in American elections.

'Backwards' Russia Policy

Senior Russian political figures and oligarchs would also be blacklisted from entering the United States and would have their U.S. assets blocked, according to the bill.

"The United States almost always responds with sanctions after crises are already under way, so they are unable to deter adversaries and bad actions in the first place, making sanctions less effective," said Van Holland. "The best defense is a good offense."

Van Hollen said the senators were working on "calibrating" the bill so that the penalties are high but the threshold for interference that would trigger the sanctions would not be "too low."

He said the Senate had scaled back some of the sanctions in the bill and have not made all of them automatic.

"The hope, of course, is that, like nuclear deterrence, these sanctions are never used, that you create enough of a penalty upfront to deter the action in the first place," Van Hollen said about the bill.

During his 45-minute talk, the senator characterized Trump's policy toward Russia as "backwards" in relation to U.S. interests, saying the Republican president is dragging his feet on sanctions while stepping away from nuclear agreements -- one of the few areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation.

The senator said Trump's withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August following Russian violations "made a bad situation even worse."

The INF treaty banned the U.S. and Russia from deploying land-based, short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Washington accused Russia of developing and testing a weapon banned by the treaty and later withdrew from the agreement after the Kremlin ignored demands to stop its program.

Russia could now build out its ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles and deploy them across its "very large landmass," he said.

The United States, on the other hand, is years away from having such missiles operational and will struggle to win European approval to deploy them within striking distance of Russia, the senator said.

Van Hollen also said extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) -- the last remaining arms control agreement with Russia -- should be a "national security priority."

New START, which expires in 2021, caps the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs. Van Hollen has introduced legislation with Senator Todd Young (Republican-Indiana) to urge the Trump administration to extend New START.

Trump has expressed a reluctance to renew it. Van Hollen indicated that it would be difficult to get the nuclear legislation passed before the 2020 election.

He said the congressional bipartisan support to counter Trump's Russia policy that was on display two years ago when CAATSA was passed "is diminishing by the day."

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.