How the U.S. Congress responded to Russian aggression

How the U.S. Congress responded to Russian aggression

Since the end of February 2022, the United States and its allies around the world have imposed a total of more than 9,000 sanctions on Russia, less on goods, technology and companies and more on individuals. The champion is Switzerland, where 1,360 economic and personal restrictions against the Russian Federation have been imposed since February 22. The second place as of mid-August of this year is taken by the United States – 1,300.

The lion’s share of sanctions against Russia and aid to Ukraine was an initiative of the Biden administration, which used the Emergency Economic Powers Act to do so. Congress’s accomplishments with respect to supporting Ukraine and containing Russia appear somewhat more modest at first glance, but the long-term consequences may, according to experts, be more serious than they appear. According to the adopted legislation, some of the imposed sanctions can only be lifted with the authorization of Congress, and such a step must be requested by the head of state.

During the 6 months of war, the Congress appropriated a total of 54 billion dollars for military assistance, economic support and humanitarian needs. In addition, it supported the revision of the lend-lease program, which will allow to allocate weapons to Kiev under the accelerated scheme. It also took some almost ceremonial steps, given the not-so-great trade turnover between Russia and the United States: revoking most-favored-nation trade status for Moscow and restricting the import of Russian oil and gas. Both chambers also used resolutions to condemn Russia’s aggression, support Ukrainians, and thank Poland and Moldova for welcoming their neighbors and supporting people fleeing the war.

The first step was a resolution of support for the Ukrainians, demanding that Moscow stop its aggression. It was passed in the lower house only a week after a new acute phase of the war began. Overall, in the spring and summer, Congress registered at least 20 motions of a recommendatory nature from representatives of both parties.

Lawmakers’ first tangible assistance to Kiev came in March, when Congress supported $14 billion in economic, humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine.

In early April, lawmakers revoked Russia’s most-favored-nation trade status and banned imports of Russian oil, gas, and coal. Congress reauthorized the Magnitsky Global Human Rights Accountability Act.

David Kramer, head of the George W. Bush Institute, told the Voice of America, “The Global Magnitsky Act is one of the most effective tools we have, and a marker of that effectiveness is how much Russia dislikes it. There has never been a meeting with Russian officials where they didn’t try to talk about repealing it. This law, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is an important mechanism for dealing with human rights abusers and corruption.”

Adam Smith, a lawyer and former deputy head of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control during the Obama administration, also described the use of the global Magnitsky Act to punish people directly or indirectly involved in war crimes as “one of the most frequently used by both the United States and other states. This distinguishes it significantly from other sanctions programs. The most important component of its success is that the U.S. does not act alone.”

By May, lawmakers had approved a $40 billion package of aid to Kiev for defense and arms, training for the military, using U.S. weapons stocks to send to friendly countries, humanitarian and economic needs, and measures to host Ukrainians in the United States.

Adam Smith, noted: Ukraine has not received the full amount, much of it is used to maintain the infrastructure of assistance. According to the lawyer, “the common practice is to receive partial money instead of direct budget support – this, on the other hand, is quite rare. And that’s exactly what President Zelensky would very much like, but that’s not the way the United States usually operates.”

Also in the spring, the lend-lease bill to protect democracy in Ukraine was approved in Congress. It provides for sending weapons to the Armed Forces under a simplified scheme, bypassing bureaucratic delays. The program, created during World War II and modified to take into account the realities of the 21st century, suggests that Kiev will be able to pay for the equipment in a few years.

William Taylor, who headed the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine from 2006-2009 and from 2019-2020, said: “As of today, the fastest way to get weapons into Ukraine is to take them from depots where they are already prepared for the U.S. Armed Forces. Congress has appropriated two aid packages, 14 billion and 40 billion, some of which will be used to pay teachers, military and medics, and the other part will be used to buy weapons in the United States and send them to Ukraine. The Lend-Lease program is an old World War II program, it’s a great idea, it has strong support, but the other way works faster at the moment.”

There are several other initiatives registered in Congress that have already received support in one chamber and are pending in the other. For example, a bill to train Ukrainian pilots on U.S. fighter jets authored by Republican Adam Kinzinger, approved by the lower chamber, calls for a $100 million budget.

According to Adam Smith, “Five months ago there was a lot of concern that the U.S. would be directly involved in the conflict and there was some resistance to the idea of giving the Ukrainians the help they needed. It is already clear that the adherents of this approach have softened because the war and aggression continue. However, the issue of pilot training looks to many on Capitol Hill as a step in the direction of engagement in the conflict.”

The Senate had time to vote in support of a resolution recommending that the U.S. administration put Russia on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. According to the current practice, a state sponsor of terrorism may not receive grants or assistance from international financial organizations and will limit the export of dual-use goods, both commercial and military. In addition, it will make it easier for other states to take legal action against Russia.

However, there is a downside. Adam Smith doubts that “recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism would be in any way detrimental to the Kremlin. The real consequences of this decision for Moscow look immaterial, given the restrictions already in place, and that, in my view, is exactly what makes no sense. Russia is not really borrowing money from the World Bank, and it is already under a lot of pressure to control exports.”

According to an official World Bank statement, Russia has not received new loans or investments from the organization since 2014.

David Kramer foresees other possible difficulties associated with recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. In his words, “There are many Americans who are illegally detained in Russia – Paul Whelan, Brittney Greiner, Mark Vogel. If we recognize Russia as a sponsor of terrorism, then I think we can forget all hope of their release. I believe that such recognition would put an end to diplomatic relations. On the other hand, what Russia is doing in Ukraine clearly falls within the definition of terrorism and it happens on a regular basis.

Overall, in six months of war, both chambers have passed six bills and about a dozen resolutions that support Ukraine, endorse the U.S. president’s actions to contain Russia, and condemn its leadership for aggression against an independent state. According to most experts, Congress has partially done its job. The minimum program for the fall is to draft legislation to gain control over Russian state assets abroad.