In March 2014, Russian troops invaded Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea. In the weeks that followed, Crimea’s pro-Russian leadership voted to join Russia, holding a referendum in which Russia reports that nearly 97 percent of Crimean voters supported secession. President Barack Obama denounced the referendum as “a clear violation of Ukrainian constitutions and international law” and stated that the global community would not recognize the vote.
In response to this glaring display of aggression, the U.S. and our allies levied a series of sanctions against Russia. President Obama issued Executive Orders (E.O.) 13660, 13661, and 13662 in March 2014. In December of that year, President Obama signed E.O. 13685, expanding upon the March sanctions. That same month, President Obama signed into law the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, further expanding his administration’s authority to impose sanctions.
Russian hostilities against Ukraine and the U.S. expanded to cyberspace. In 2015, Russian hackers attacked the Ukrainian electrical grid, turning off the power for one-fifth of Kiev--an attack that cybersecurity experts said could be a test run for future attacks against more complex systems. Two years later, the CIA, NSA, and FBI confirmed that the Russian government intentionally attacked the 2016 U.S. elections to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency." In response, President Obama approved an amendment to E.O. 13964, which gave him the authority to expand sanctions to include nine Russian actors, including two Russian government intelligence agencies: the FSB and GRU.
Immediately following the swearing in of the 115th Congress, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced legislation to create an independent commission to investigate Russia’s cyber activity in the 2016 elections. While Congress has thus far failed to move on this bill, it has stepped up in imposing sanctions on Russia. On August 2, 2017, President Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The bill levies new sanctions against Russia and prohibits President Trump from lifting existing sanctions without congressional certification. The House and Senate passed CAATSA, which also responds to threats from Iran and North Korea, with nearly unanimous approval. After signing the bill, President Trump released a statement criticizing the legislation and walking back his commitment to certain provisions.
Despite the legislation’s strong bipartisan support, the Trump administration waited until October 2017 -- nearly a month after the statutory deadline had passed -- to submit to Congress its list of Russian entities to be sanctioned. The administration began implementing sanctions on these Russian entities in January 2018, but was slow in following those measures up with a more comprehensive strategy and even argued for a time that sanctions were no longer necessary. On March 15, 2018, the Department of the Treasury levied sanctions against 24 Russian organizations and individuals in response to Russia’s interference with the 2016 election and additional “malicious cyber-attacks.” Due to the delay, Senator Cardin (D-MD) warned that, “the almost purposeful foot-dragging by the Trump Administration has sent a clear signal to Vladimir Putin that he can continue his destabilizing behavior against the United States, our interests and our allies.” Certain mandatory provisions in CAATSA remain unimplemented by President Trump, including provisions requiring sanctions targeting the Russian defense and intelligence industries.
On March 4, after British intelligence agencies concluded that it was “highly likely” Russia had poisoned a former spy who was living in Britain, President Trump, after some hesitation, authorized the State Department to expel 60 diplomats and shutter the Russian consulate in Seattle, joining other NATO allies in their response. Four months later, exposure to the same nerve agent killed one woman and caused her boyfriend to lose consciousness. While there is no known reason for Russia to have targeted the couple, the UK Defense Minister has blamed the country for “an attack on British soil which has seen the death of a British citizen.”
In spring 2018, Treasury strengthened its Russian sanctions and, shortly thereafter, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley provoked the President by announcing an additional round of Russian sanctions in response to the Kremlin’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The administration quickly walked these sanctions back, blaming Haley's "momentary confusion."
In June, the White House implemented another round of sanctions under CAATSA, responding to attacks on undersea communication lines. Despite his imposition of sanctions, President Trump remains steadfast in his belief of President Putin’s assertions that Russia did not meddle in American elections. After their July 16th summit in Helsinki, President Trump publicly sided with the Russian strongman over his own intelligence agencies’ assessments saying he “doesn’t see any reason why [the election meddling] would be Russia” -- comments which drew widespread condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the comments “thoughtless, dangerous, and weak,” while Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said the comments made the country “look more like a pushover.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Congress passed important legislation, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), to prohibit President Trump from removing sanctions against Russia without Congressional support. Now Congress must conduct rigorous oversight to demand that the Administration fully implements CAATSA. At the same time, much more should be done to safeguard American electoral systems going forward.
Senators James Lankford (R-NE) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the Secure Elections Act (S.2261) to strengthen our cybersecurity defenses against any future attacks. The bill would improve information sharing among government agencies, provide technical assistance to state and local election officials, and establish an Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to be overseen by the Department of Homeland Security – a move that has also been supported by the House. Call your Senators today at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to support this important legislation!
The Honest Ads Act, introduced by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and John McCain (R-AZ) in the Senate and by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Mike Coffman (R-CO) in the House, would require that online political ads have to disclose their sponsors, just like ads on TV or radio. That's just common sense. The bill would also make a searchable database of online ads. Call your senators and representative today at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to co-sponsor the Honest Ads Act.
In January 2017, Senator Ben Cardin introduced a bill designed to establish an independent investigative commission on Russia’s election meddling. By passing this bill, the Senate would send a clear message about its seriousness in protecting American democracy from authoritarian aggressors. Call your senators today at (202) 224-3121 to ask them to support this bill and protect American electoral integrity.
- Ten Legislative Proposals to Defend America against Foreign Influence Operations – By David Salvo and Brittany Beaulieu, Alliance to Secure Democracy / German Marshall Fund, April 2018
- Russia, Trump, and the 2016 U.S. Election – By Jonathan Masters, Council on Foreign Relations, February 2018
- Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security – Minority staff report prepared for the use of the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, January 2018
- American and Russian Opinion at a Standoff on Crimea Sanctions – By Dina Smeltz, Lily Wojtowicz, and Stepan Goncharov, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, January 2018
- Acts of an Adversary: Russia’s Ongoing Hostilities Toward the United States and Its Allies – By Max Bergmann and Carolyn Kennedy, Center for American Progress, December 2017
- The Kremlin's Trojan Horses 2 – By Alina Polyakova et al., Atlantic Council Eurasia Center, November 2017
- The Return of Global Russia: An Analytical Framework – By Paul Stronski and Richard Sokolsky, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 2017
- Shatter the House of Mirrors: A Conference Report on Russian Influence Operations – By Dr. James M. Ludes and Dr. Mark R. Jacobson, Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, October 2017
- Russiagate: The Depth of Collusion – By Max Bermann, CAP Action's Moscow Project, August 2017