US Lawmakers Remain Firm on Russia Sanctions

US sanctions on Russia, imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, must not only be maintained, “they should be tightened,” according to Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH).

As recently as March 20, Russia has performed military drills practicing “offensive and defensive operations,” in Crimea, Chabot said, adding: “The fact that Russia has successfully claimed another country’s sovereign territory as its own and then carries out unprecedented offensive military drills there [is] absolutely unacceptable.”

Chabot suggested that “in the last number of years America’s traditional leadership role around the world has often times been lacking.” He went on to describe a “power vacuum around various parts of the globe” that Russian President “Vladimir Putin and other bad actors have taken advantage of.” He called Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 an “egregious example of that power vacuum.”

The West cannot afford to stand idly by, said Chabot.

Chabot spoke at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council—“Crimea: Reflecting on Three Years of Russian Occupation”—on Capitol Hill on March 21.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) echoed Chabot’s sentiment and said that the US Congress will not reconsider the sanctions until Russians “relent” and respect the “full sovereignty” of Ukraine.

The future of the sanctions has been a contentious issue in light of US President Donald Trump’s expressed desire to improve relations with Russia. However, both Chabot, a Republican, and Connolly, a Democrat, insisted on the necessity of maintaining sanctions.

“Bipartisan congressional efforts have been critical in keeping the attention on this important issue,” said Alina Polyakova, director of research for Europe and Eurasia at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

With its annexation of Crimea, Russia broke the Budapest Memorandum, a 1994 agreement signed by Moscow that guarantees Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons, said Polyakova. She described how the annexation constitutes the first Russian attempt to revise international boarders by force since World War 2, and threatens the sustainability of the post-Cold War international order.

Immediately following the annexation, then US President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia. In January 2017, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations (UN), delivered remarks at the UN advocating for the continuation of these sanctions and the “immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea.” Also in January, Chabot and Connolly reintroduced H.R. 463 the Crimea Annexation Non-Recognition Act, which would officially reject sovereignty of the Russian Federation over Crimea and prohibit federal departments or agencies to act in any way to contradict such a stance.

While Polyakova delivered opening remarks, Chabot and Connolly delivered a joint keynote address at the Council event. This was followed by a discussion that featured Anders Åslund, a resident senior fellow with the Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center; Steven Pifer, former US Ambassador to Ukraine and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Michael Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, University of Pennsylvania; and Robert Herman, vice president for International Programs, Emergency Assistance Programs, and Multilateral Initiatives, Freedom House. Melinda Haring, editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert, moderated the discussion.

“Russian aggression in Ukraine is not only an immediate threat to the security of NATO members, but also a telltale sign of what Russian aggression might look like in the not-so-distant future against other neighbors in the region,” said Chabot. As examples, he listed Georgia—which has been occupied by Russian troops since 2008—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

To re-establish “stability and peace” in Ukraine “we must ensure that the people of Ukraine have the freedom to choose their own representatives in free and fair elections without coercion from Vladimir Putin,” said Chabot. “America has a moral duty to support the Ukrainians in those efforts.”

Connolly insisted that “Ukraine has a right to seek its own future,” and that the United States “has to be the essential partner” in that process.

Connolly considered Crimea a starting point, saying that a rejection of the status quo in Crimea ought to lead to a similar view in eastern Ukraine and Georgia. “Moscow has to understand the right of sovereign nations to their own autonomy, their own independence, and their own futures, even if they are neighboring countries,” he said.

According to Connolly, we cannot “reopen history,” and instead must accept the legitimately agreed-upon boarders that exist today, not those that Russia has attempted to redefine by force. He claimed the Stimson Doctrine is a precedent—a policy which refused to recognize territorial claims relying on the use of force, and rejected Soviet control of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The doctrine ultimately led to the sovereignty of the Baltic States, he said.

Chabot also mentioned the “clarity” on the issue of Crimea between the Obama and Trump administrations. The latter has reaffirmed the sanctions on Crimea previously imposed by Obama.

What exists in Crimea today can be thought of as a “replication in miniature of the political system that has been erected by Vladimir Putin in Russia,” said Herman. He described how features of the situation in Crimea today include: the “absence of accountable governance” in terms of issues of legitimacy in elections, a “dearth of political pluralism,” a judicial system that “has been completely subordinated to executive authority,” “near-complete elimination of independent media… extending to the online space,” and the “systematic violation” of “fundamental human rights,” including freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly.

Restrictive legislation has led to a massive exodus of journalists who chose to leave Russia because of repression and intimidation, while civil society’s abilities to associate and receive funding from foreign countries are being restricted, said Herman. He advocated for increased transparency on human rights violations in Crimea as key to a transitioning back to Ukrainian control.

Crimea, most notable for its tourism industry and strategically significant military base, is quite obviously “depressed,” according to Åslund. As a result of the “very effective” sanctions imposed on the region, even Russian-controlled companies are choosing not to operate in the region, he said, as is the case in the banking sector there, which is managed by banks unaffiliated with the Russian state. Foreign trade has fallen by almost 90 percent, “cut off” since activists destroyed main electricity lines there in 2015.

Pifer sees economic growth in Ukraine as the key to Crimea’s future. “Economic sanctions… can make holding onto Crimea painful for the Russians and it can drive up the costs, but I don’t see the costs reaching the point economically where Vladimir Putin reverses course,” he said.

Combatting government corruption in Ukraine is also a key to incentivizing the people of Crimea to “build a population that is more receptive to going back to Ukraine,” said Carpenter.

“The one scenario in which I think Ukraine could in the longer-term succeed would be if Ukraine built an economy that was so successful that the people of Crimea concluded that their economic [future] might be better as part of Ukraine [rather than] Russia,” Pifer said.

Both Carpenter and Pifer agreed that the return of Crimea to Ukraine is a long-term issue, and the immediate focus should be on conflict in the Donbas, a region that was significant to the industrial production of the Soviet Union and could provide important materials for Russian defense and space industries.

Carpenter described Crimea as a “highly militarized region.” He said: “what that means for US policy going forward is… there is no military counter… that will enable Ukraine to regain control of the Peninsula given the sheer number of assets and the strength of those assets on the Peninsula.”

However, he said, greater maritime posture in the Black Sea ought to be considered by the United States and NATO to counter Russian offensive capabilities. Those capabilities could include short- and medium-range ballistic missiles within range of NATO territories such as Turkey and Romania—which hosts US missile defense sites—in addition to Bulgaria, Georgia, and other parts of Europe, said Carpenter.

The naval significance of the peninsula is muted beyond the Black Sea by the Turkish Straits, and Russian air power based in Crimea “is more vulnerable” than it would be in interior Russia, Pifer pointed out. However, he added, the Russian deployment of dual-capable Iskander missiles in Crimea would indicate a more serious military threat.

Jack Gloss is a communications intern at the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: Alina Polyakova

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a video link, dedicated to the start of natural gas supplying from mainland Russia to Crimea, in Moscow, Russia, December 27, 2016. (Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)