Congress Sacrifices U.S. Security with New Sanctions Against Russia

In the midst of negotiations to avoid another government shutdown, Congress rammed through new sanctions against Russia as part of the misnamed “Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.”

Congress appears determined to turn an adversary into an enemy and encourage retaliation against more significant American interests. Observed my colleague Emma Ashford: “the provisions in this bill will make it all the more difficult to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine crisis, or to find a way to salvage any form of productive U.S.-Russia relationship.”

Last year, the corrupt but elected Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by protests backed by rabid and sometimes violent nationalists. The United States and Europe flaunted their support for the opposition. Indeed, American officials openly discussed who should take power after his ouster.

Russian President Vladimir Putin still was not justified in dismembering Ukraine, but America would have reacted badly had Moscow helped overthrow a Washington-friendly government in Mexico.

Ukraine’s fate is not a serious security interest for the United States. The conflict raises humanitarian concerns, but no different than those elsewhere around the globe.

Kiev’s status matters more to Europe, largely for economic reasons. If the European Union and its members want to confront Russia over Ukraine, they should do so—without Washington’s involvement.

Of course, President Putin is an unpleasant autocrat who doesn’t much like America. But Russia is not the Soviet Union. Like the old Russian Empire, Moscow today wants respect and border security.

Washington has no reason to deny the first or challenge the second. Yet from expansion of NATO, to dismemberment of Serbia, to treatment of Georgia and Ukraine as allies, the United States and Europe have increased Moscow’s insecurity.

Now Russia believes that it must prevent a united Ukraine from aligning with the West (no doubt, Putin also appreciates the popularity boost from his actions). So far, Moscow perceives its interests in Ukraine to outweigh the cost of sanctions. Congress can keep upping the ante, but Ukraine always will matter much more to Russia than to the United States.

A hostile government in Washington funding anti-Putin groups in Moscow can only be seen by Russian authorities as an attempt to overthrow their government. Upping aid to Kiev will work little better since Ukraine is a financial black hole.

Washington cannot afford to take on another bankrupt client state. Let Europe, with far greater hope of economic gain from future trade and investment, do so.

Military assistance to Ukraine is worse. It is only likely to fuel a fire which the allies cannot quench. Moscow can always trump any escalation by Ukraine.

Of course, Ukrainians nevertheless may decide that war is worth the price. Then they should proceed without the United States.

The legislation also restricts the ability of the Obama administration to negotiate. A diplomatic solution might be unsatisfying, but a compromise agreement is the best outcome achievable.

The outlines of a settlement are clear: Peace agreement policed by outside observers; end to military action by Kiev and Moscow; independent Ukraine;a federal system with regional autonomy; commercial relations with all countries; military relations with none. Congress appears determined to make compromise impossible.

Republican legislators, in particular, lack the slightest shame or self-awareness. These avowed critics of social engineering at home believe the U.S. government can remake foreign societies abroad.

The most likely outcome of their deluded handiwork is a new Cold War without the ideological component.

As I noted in Forbes: “The United States desperately needs foreign policy leadership. That is, leaders willing to set priorities and able to distinguish between vital and minor interests. Leaders willing to eschew cheap attempts to win votes and focus on advancing Americans’ welfare. Leaders willing to acknowledge their failings and America’s limitations. Leaders who obviously don’t exist in the White House or Congress today.”