President Trump and U.S. lawmakers should consider revising sanctions targeting Russia so they focus more on Russian oligarchs, a senior Republican lawmaker suggested after participating in a congressional delegation visit to Moscow.
“You do something and nobody ever sits back and analyzes, 'Well, is it working?’” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told the Washington Examiner. “And I think you'd be hard-pressed to say that sanctions against Russia are really working all that well.”
[Byron York: What really happened when GOP senators visited Moscow]
Johnson was a member of a congressional delegation that met last week with Russian diplomats and lawmakers, although the Russian government initially resisted allowing him to enter the country. He returned to the U.S. skeptical of the efficacy of the sanctions, which were designed to punish Russian interference in the 2016 elections and other aggressive foreign policy moves.
“I've always been concerned about the double-edged sword of economic sanctions can be used by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to blame America for any lack of economic progress — but again, on the ground, they don't seem to be having a real horrible economic effect, not in Moscow anyway,” said Johnson, who also chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee for Europe.
Other U.S. punishments have had a more pointed effect, like the sanctions imposed on Putin’s political allies and his oligarch favorites. Johnson said that's an approach the U.S. should employ more often.
Johnson said targeting Putin's inner circle would not only be more effective, but it would allow the U.S. to avoid alienating the Russian people.
“My sense is that the targeted sanctions to the oligarchs, to the members of government, are the ones that really sting and probably [offer] the best chance of affecting their behavior," he said. "The Russian people, they don't care if an oligarch can't buy a $10 million mansion in London.”
Johnson said after his trip that he's looking for ways to build trust between the two sides. But he also acknowledged the need to avoid any move that might inadvertently signal weakness to Russia.
“When ruthless, strong people perceive weakness, they pounce,” said Johnson, who chairs the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. “Russia wants to reconstitute, basically, its sphere of influence that they had in the Soviet Union. So, youunderstand that, and if you don’t want to let that happen, you’ve got to push back with strength and resolve … but that doesn’t mean that we have to be enemies.”
U.S. leaders have used a series of sanctions to counter Putin’s aggression. Then-President Barack Obama and European leaders imposed sanctions on Russia's banking and energy sectors in response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Obama also expelled dozens of Russian diplomats and intelligence officials as part of individual sanctions designations after the 2016 elections.
Months later, lawmakers passed a broad package to codify those sanctions in law and mandate additional punishment for the Ukraine and election controversies, as well as Putin’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Johnson said he's worried that Congress over-reacted to Russia's election interference, which resulted in legislation that tied Trump’s hands with mandatory sanctions.
“I've been pretty upfront that the election interference — as serious as that was, and unacceptable — is not the greatest threat to our democracy,” he said. “We've blown it way out of proportion — [as if it's] the greatest threat to democracy ... We need to really honestly assess what actually happened, what effect did it have, and what effect are our sanctions actually having, positively and negatively.”
That sentiment might trouble Russia hawks who are looking for signs that the Trump-led Republican party will go easy on Putin. But Johnson argued that the Moscow trip produced a valuable debate between the two sides about political interference.
Johnson said that during the trip, the Republican lawmakers decried the release of emails stolen from Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. The Russians denied the charges, and then accused the Americans of interfering in Russian politics and elections in neighboring countries.
That debate dominated the roughly five hours of meetings scheduled during the trip. “Nobody yielded,” he said.