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U.S. Senator Vows To Punish Russia For Alleged Election Meddling

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham

MUNICH, Germany -- A leading Republican senator has vowed to seek increased punishments against Russia for its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, saying that “2017 is going to be the year of kicking Russia in the ass in Congress.”

Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) spoke on a panel on U.S. foreign policy at the Munich Security Conference on February 19 along with two Democratic senators, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

U.S. intelligence agencies released a report in January saying they had assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” seeking to undermine faith in the U.S. electoral system and denigrate Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. It said that Russia developed a clear preference for Donald Trump, who won the November 8 election and was sworn in on January 20.

“My biggest concern with President Trump…is that he’s never really looked a camera in the eye and said that even though it was the Democratic Party that suffered from Russian interference, I am now the leader of the free world…and I can assure you that [Russia is] going to pay the price on my watch for trying to interfere in our election,” Graham said. “You have to say that.”

Graham, a longtime critic of Russia who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that when U.S. political infighting in the wake of the election dies down, Congress “will move on to other things, and top of the list will be sanctions against Russia.”

He said his hope is to win strong bipartisan support for a bill that would impose additional sanctions on Russia “for interference in our election” and to “put it on Trump’s desk,” adding "I hope he can embrace the idea...that he should be working with us to punish Russia."

He said that “2017 is going to be the year of kicking Russia in the ass in Congress.”

Murphy also said that U.S. lawmakers were “not doing enough” to respond to the alleged meddling.

“The fact of the matter is that Russia attempted to swing the United States election for one candidate,” Murphy said. “They have thus far paid a very low price for that interference.”

He said that Congress can play an investigatory role to “once and for all get to the bottom of the scope of that interference” and has the power to levy sanctions against Russia beyond those imposed by former President Barack Obama.

But Murphy said that Congress ultimately has “a much bigger role to play, which is to give the executive branch the real tools to use to combat the asymmetric warfare that Russia uses throughout the region.”

“We’d be fooling ourselves to think that the only response to Russian aggression is to just dramatically plus up the defense budget,” he said, referring to the Trump administration’s plans for more military spending.

“Russia uses its energy power, its ability to bully and bribe and intimidate” and other methods including “propaganda and information distribution” to wield influence in other nations, Murphy said.

He said that the United States spends 20 times more on the military than on “tools that push back against those other means Russia uses to project power" and that if that does not change, “We’re just never going to be in that game.”

“We have to step back and think about whether every American president is going to fail in trying to combat Russian expansionism, if we don’t [provide] some other non-defense, non-military tools,” Murphy said.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.