The crisis in eastern Ukraine continues to simmer and risks boiling over. Nearly three months after the Minsk ceasefire agreement was signed, Russia has done nothing to implement its terms. Instead, it has deployed more troops and weapons into Ukraine.
Capitol Hill looks poised to enact the “Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.” Congress should rapidly authorize the provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine and press a reluctant administration to deliver them; that will help Ukraine. Congress should not, however, mandate sanctions on Russia; that will not help, and it could hurt.
The Minsk agreement came about after regular Russian army units entered Ukraine in late August and badly pounded Ukrainian forces. President Poroshenko had little choice other than accept a ceasefire. But the Kremlin has not fulfilled the terms. Russian forces remain in Donetsk and Luhansk, and Moscow has not secured the Ukraine-Russia border or permitted Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe teams to monitor it.
The West has cranked up economic sanctions on Moscow and extended political and economic support to Kyiv. Washington has provided Ukraine non-lethal military aid. A senior White House official suggested last week that the time has come to consider lethal assistance. Congress should pass legislation and press the administration to do so.
The White House’s hesitancy to arm Ukraine stems from a fear that Russia would escalate in response. That argument might have made sense in September, when there were hopes—not necessarily expectations, but hopes—that the Minsk agreement would halt the fighting and launch a genuine settlement process.
Minsk, however, has not done that. Fighting continues, and no real negotiations have begun. The past two weeks have seen a new influx of Russian military equipment.
In contrast to the White House’s concern, providing defensive arms—such as light anti-armor weapons—would not encourage escalation. It would deter it. A better-equipped Ukrainian army could impose heavier costs on any Russian military offensive. That would help dissuade President Putin from further fighting, especially as his government takes extraordinary (and disgraceful) measures to hide from the Russian people the fact that Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine.
Congress thus should act quickly to arm Ukraine, but Congressional sanctions are a different question.
Over the past eight months, the administration has moved in concert with the European Union to impose more painful sanctions on Russia. While the process has not been particularly artful, the sanctions are inflicting damage on the Russian economy. Capital flight is up, the ruble is down, hard currency reserves are falling, and projections for future economic growth are increasingly dismal.
Should Moscow remain the problem rather than facilitate a peaceful settlement in Ukraine, the administration should work with Europe to add new sanctions. But this should be action by the executive branch, not the legislative branch.
The point of sanctions is to alter Russia’s approach to Ukraine. Should Russian policy change in a positive direction, the West will want to ease sanctions, in order to encourage the Russians to go further. The administration now has full power to relax sanctions. That becomes far more difficult if sanctions have been mandated by Congress.
The United States and Europe have displayed notable unity on sanctions—and probably surprised Mr. Putin. If Moscow makes real moves to deescalate the crisis and the European Union eases sanctions while Congressionally-mandated U.S. sanctions stay in place, that unity will end. The Russians would exploit the difference.
Congressional sanctions, moreover, would give the Kremlin a disincentive to change its policy toward Ukraine. In a nutshell, Congress is good at applying sanctions, not so good at lifting them. The Russians know that from bitter experience.
The 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment denied the Soviet Union and its successor states permanent normal trade relation status until religious minorities, principally Soviet Jews, could freely emigrate. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia opened the door for emigration. Hundreds of thousands of Jews left for Israel, America and Europe.
Virtually anyone who wanted to leave could and did. By 1997, Moscow clearly had met the Jackson-Vanik requirements. Yet it took Congress another fifteen years to graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik—and it did so then only as part of the Magnitsky Act, which applied a new set of sanctions on Russia.
Congressional sanctions may offer the Hill a feel-good measure, but they will likely backfire and not help Ukraine. Sanctions aim to incentivize Moscow to do the right thing and leave Ukraine in peace. But if Russian officials believe the sanctions will remain in place in any case, where do they see an incentive to change course, especially if they could play Europe off against Washington? They would just dig in.
So, by all means, Congress should pass legislation to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine. It should, however, set sanctions aside.
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