Congress Steps Up on Russia

Trump will have to earn more discretion on foreign policy.


Russian President Vladimir Putin on nationwide television in Moscow on June 15, 2017.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on nationwide television in Moscow on June 15, 2017. PHOTO: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Whatever you think about Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia, the controversy has achieved one positive result. On Wednesday the Senate voted 97-2 to strengthen sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s regime, a rare moment of bipartisan agreement these days.

The amendment to an Iran sanctions bill would require congressional approval before President Trump lifts current sanctions on Russian entities. It broadens the field of potential sanctions targets to include those involved in human-rights abuses or doing business with Russian intelligence and defense industries, among others. It also expands the range of Russian industries that could be subject to sanctions.

The Administration objected to the proposal, but what did Mr. Trump expect? Ordinarily we’d agree with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who warned a House committee this week not to limit the President’s “flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation.” The Constitution intends for the executive to have broad discretion on foreign policy. 

But it’s hard to fault Congress for being skeptical. Though there’s no evidence of campaign “collusion” with Russia, Mr. Trump has been oddly solicitous of Mr. Putin. Congress is sending a useful message that Mr. Trump has little running room to negotiate unless the Russian changes his behavior.

Mr. Putin is giving American leaders plenty of reasons to act. Russians have spread misinformation and used computer hacks to disrupt elections in France, Germany and the U.S. Russia still occupies Ukrainian territory in Crimea; frequently violates the Minsk cease-fire agreements the Obama Administration helped negotiate for eastern Ukraine; and is propping up Bashar Assad in Syria.

U.S. sanctions are also a message of support for the thousands of Russians protesting against corruption this week in the streets of major cities. The protests were inspired by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was sentenced this week to 30 days in jail for organizing a rally in Moscow. In a sign of how worried the Kremlin is, up to 1,700 protesters may have been arrested and courts are sentencing some to weeks in prison.

One question is why Democrats on Capitol Hill took so long to notice. Their new enthusiasm for Russia sanctions follows eight years during which most—although not all—Congressional Democrats endorsed President Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s “reset” with Mr. Putin, supported Mr. Obama’s refusal to offer lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, and granted him ample loopholes in sanctions legislation on both Russia and Iran. Their conversion now looks more political than principled.

That doesn’t make them less right, and we hope the House picks up the Senate sanctions legislation. Mr. Trump would then have to decide whether to veto, but an override wouldn’t improve his standing on the world stage. The better choice would be to sign the bill, enforce the sanctions vigorously, and work with Congress to forge a bipartisan approach to Russia. That would help the President rebut fears that he can’t be trusted on Russia, while telling Mr. Putin that rogue behavior won’t be rewarded.

Appeared in the June 16, 2017, print edition.

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