The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday tried to make sense of the Trump administration’s strategy on Russia. They did not make much progress.
“This committee is attempting to get a clearer sense of the administration’s overall posture on Russia …We would like to understand what was agreed to when the leaders of our two countries sat down in Helsinki,” said committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). “To date, we have received no real readout.”
The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) also brought up being “in the dark” about President Trump’s July meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which took place behind closed doors.
“I’m not convinced that those who need to know in our own executive branch have a full understanding of what happened,” said Menendez, citing the threat of Russian interference in the upcoming midterm elections and news that Microsoft had discovered and seized several domains linked to the Russian military.
For two hours, senators questioned A. Wes Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Marshall Billingslea, Treasury’s assistant secretary for terrorism financing. What largely came out of the hearing was that the Trump administration has imposed and will continue to impose — and maybe even expand — sanctions.
Corker worried that “there’s no way to stop [Russian] involvement in our elections”:
What good were the current sanctions, the senators wanted to know, if Russia had in no way changed its behavior? Well, they were told time and time again, the sanctions were having “an effect” on the Russian economy.
But Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) pushed back on that point, arguing that the purpose of the sanctions was “not just to influence the Russian economy,” but to change Russia’s behavior on a number of fronts, including it’s illegal annexation of Crimea, its role in interfering in the U.S. democratic process, its role in Syria supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and its dismal human rights record.
“There’s a difference between working and having an effect,” said Billingslea, adding that the sanctions were “working” in that they were part of a broader strategy that “contains the Putin regime.”
But, he added, the United States’ Eastern European allies need to “shore up their anti-money laundering regimes” because huge sums of money, he said, are still flowing out of Russia via criminal networks and Putin’s cronies.
Some senators were clearly frustrated with the lack of clarity from the witnesses, particularly from assistant secretary Mitchell, on the difference between what the president tweets and actual State Department policy (the senators did not believe the two were aligned, while Mitchell insisted that policy is being dictated directly by the president).
Mitchell also share any details with the committee on what was discussed between Trump and Putin in Helsinki in July:
Several other senators, including Rand Paul (R-KY), tried to get at this same lack of transparency by asking where things stood with Russia on several tracks. Paul, specifically, wanted to know if there are any negotiations (or even plans for negotiations) on two key weapons agreements, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
The answer: Not so much. Mitchell said there was only a “line of sight” to pursuing strategic stability talks.
The unequal weight of unequal sanctions
More than anything, Tuesday’s hearing demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of sanctions on the part of some senators, which made it almost impossible for them to ask the right questions.
For instance, Sen. James Risch (R-ID) stated that sanctions against Russia would take time to make a difference, by virtue of the type of economic tool they are, which is true enough.
But he then brought up Iran as an example of when sanctions do work, with the Trump administration reimposing sanctions on Iran after the United States pulled out of the multilateral 2015 nuclear deal.
What Risch failed to note — and Billingslea certainly did not mention — was that the sanctions against Iran — ones that strike at its financial sector and promise retaliation (via secondary sanctions) on any foreign companies and states that invest in Iran or do trade with it are radically different that the sanctions — all 580 of them — imposed on Russia.
The oil sanctions against Iran will also kick in on November 5, whereas the Trump administration has yet to hit at Russia’s energy exports — with natural gas being the country’s number one export — and has not been able to cut off funding to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipelines, which take Russia’s natural gas into western Europe.
Nonetheless, Risch noted one key difference between Iran and Russia: “Obviously, when you are in a country that is influenced more by a religious fervor, like it is in Iran, that is different from Russia, where the dollar, where money is really important,” said the Idaho senator, apparently missing the obvious fact that people in Iran have been protesting over inflation and their currency’s loss in value, and not over theological tensions.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was taking place at the same time as a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Russia sanctions.