By PAULA J. DOBRIANSKY And DAVID B. RIVKIN JR., Oct. 4, 2015 6:11 p.m. ET
From Ukraine to Syria, the Obama administration has consistently misread Russian President Vladimir Putin ’s objectives and the implications of cooperating with him. This has led to costly failures, but the administration is unlikely to change its approach. Congress need not sit idle too. By enacting new sanctions on Russia, U.S. lawmakers can send a strong signal to Moscow that its continued aggression against Ukraine and growing complicity in a genocidal war in Syria will come at a heavy price.
After Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, the Obama administration and many U.S. allies imposed sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals. But those measures clearly haven’t been effective in discouraging Mr. Putin’s quest to exert Russian power and influence.
In Ukraine, despite the supposed cease-fire effected by the Minsk Accords negotiated by Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, Moscow-supported aggression continues in the contested east. Russian troops remain in the region, as an extensive Sept. 14 report from the Atlantic Council documents, and Reuters has reported that new Russian military bases are being built.
In Syria, Mr. Putin, under the guise of fighting Islamic State, supports the Bashar Assad regime, which has used barrel bombs and chemical weapons in slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians, mostly Sunni Muslims—making Russia complicit in, and legally accountable for, these actions. The Obama administration over the past week has hinted that it might cooperate with Russia’s anti-ISIS campaign.
The danger of association with an aggressor like Mr. Putin, who is also working with Iraq and Iran, can be seen in Russian airstrikes over the past few days directed not at ISIS but at other opponents of the Assad regime. The Obama administration’s initial seeming openness to working with Mr. Putin in Syria has already compromised the White House’s ability to hold Moscow accountable on any front, including for its aggression in Ukraine.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the president has formidable authority for conducting foreign policy, but there are several steps—practical and symbolic—that Congress can take that would demonstrate a resolve toward Russia that hasn’t been forthcoming from the Obama administration.
On the symbolic side, Congress can legislate a finding, based on ample evidence, that the Russian military has committed war crimes in Ukraine, and is aiding and abetting the Assad regime’s genocide and Iran’s terrorism-sponsoring activities. Using the congressional bully pulpit can help drive the public debate, especially during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Congress can also enact new sanctions that will have an immediate and profound effect—starting with the Russian oil-refining industry.
Despite Mr. Putin’s far-reaching strategic aspirations, Russia is punching well above its weight. The Russian economy continues to shrink, buffeted by falling oil prices and Western sanctions, and 2014 capital flight has exceeded $150 billion. Hundreds of Russian casualties in Ukraine are causing discontent, with Russian media reporting how Russian contract soldiers—in the part-volunteer, part-draftee military—are refusing to deploy to Ukraine or Syria. According to the Moscow-based independent polling organization Levada, fewer than 14% of Russians support military intervention in Syria.
Russia’s greatest vulnerability may be its refineries. While Russia is one of the world’s top energy producers, its refining facilities are antiquated, with low product quality, no spare capacity, and infrastructure in desperate need of significant investment. The refining infrastructure is so weak that Russia ran out of gasoline in 2011, precipitating shortages and substantial popular discontent. Russian media reported that the head of the majority-government-owned Rosneft oil company, Igor Sechin, sent Mr. Putin a letter on July 15 warning of a major shortfall in refined products by 2016-17 unless the refining sector gets emergency financial assistance.
Most of Russia’s approximately 50 major refineries date to the Soviet period. According to a 2014 report prepared for Russia’s parliament, the refiners also require a steady supply of Western, particularly American, equipment. Current U.S. sanctions apply only to new Russian oil and gas production projects. But an embargo—even if only a unilateral one by the U.S.—on exports of refinery pumps, compressors, control equipment and catalytic agents would cause widespread shortages of refined products, putting tremendous pressure on Russia’s civilian economy and Moscow’s ability to carry out military operations. The Putin regime would suffer major political damage.
President Obama might veto such refinery sanctions legislation because of its potentially drastic effect, but as Russia’s behavior becomes ever more outrageous, he might not be able to summon Democratic support as readily as he did for the Iranian nuclear deal. In any case, Congress would do well to make U.S. policy toward Russia a matter for serious discussion during an election year—and to remind Mr. Putin that with the Obama administration’s days dwindling, a significant course correction in U.S. foreign policy could be on the horizon.
Ms. Dobriansky is a former undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs in the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Rivkin is a constitutional lawyer who served in the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.