Congress Has Limited Means to Punish Russia

On Friday, at least 50 Ukrainian civilians, along with police officers and volunteers, were killed in a Russian missile attack at Kramatorsk’s railway station. Federal lawmakers are now entering a two week recess.

For months, the House and Senate have been at a standstill over how to deter Russia’s military aggression, even as the number of Ukrainian casualties swells to more than 3,400, according to the latest report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Congress, which includes the Departments of Commerce and Justice that work together to enforce sanctions and confiscations has mostly passed only symbolic legislation.

On Thursday, lawmakers sent two bills to President Joe Biden’s desk. The first removes Russia and Belarus from a list of countries that benefit from “permanent normal trade relations” with the United States. The bill directs the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office to persuade other World Trade Organization member countries to suspend Russia’s “most-favored-nation” trade status and to remove the country from the international organization. Second, the bill codifies an already existing ban on Russian imports of energy.

The importance of this legislation was quickly extolled by lawmakers. Taken together, they will “send a message to a dictator in Russia,” said House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat. “This package is about bringing every tool of economic pressure to bear on Vladimir Putin and his oligarch cronies,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate finance Committee, in a statement. “Putin’s Russia does not deserve to be a part of the economic order that has existed since the end of World War II.”

But beyond sending a message, the bills don’t do much. Biden issued executive orders that prohibit Russia’s import of oil, natural gas liquefied, coal, seafood and alcoholic drinks, as well as exports of luxury goods. Biden has already placed restrictions on U.S. investments in Russia’s energy sector.

Those moves have had only limited effect, largely because the U.S. is not a primary destination of Russian products; Russia was America’s 26th largest goods trading partner in 2019, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. So the bill that Congress passed Thursday that effectively increases the tariffs on Russian goods isn’t a crushing punishment. Moreover, Biden’s executive orders already entirely banned the few key imports between the U.S. and Russia, like fuel.

On Wednesday, the House approved a second bill that directed Biden to approve a report that would examine whether Russia has engaged in war crimes against Ukraine. This bill needs to pass the Senate.

The administrative state has been largely responsible for U.S. government efforts to deter others. The Commerce Department on Thursday banned three Russian airline companies from providing maintenance or refueling services. The Justice Department also helped Spanish law enforcement seize a sanctioned Russian oligarch’s $90 million yacht earlier in April. “Today marks our task force’s first seizure of an asset belonging to a sanctioned individual with close ties to the Russian regime,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said April 4. “It will not be the last.”

Congress’ relative powerlessness is partly structural. While the legislative branch has the ability to control the money, the executive can issue its own sanctions. The Congress sent an almost $14 billion package in March that provided humanitarian and military aid for Ukraine. But Congress’s inaction is also the result of national politics. Lawmakers from both parties, while largely supporting efforts to sanction and punish the Putin regime, are attempting to balance their constituents’ preferences just months before the November midterms.

What is the one pressure point? According to Gallup polling, economic sanctions on Russia could lead to rising inflation and further supply chain issues. All this while voters place increasing inflation at the top of their priorities list. The majority of Americans are still committed to supporting Ukraine. Quinnipiac recently found that most Americans are willing to call Russian President Vladimir Putin mental unstable. However, the Quinnipiac Poll also showed Americans having overwhelmingly positive attitudes towards Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Only 64% of Americans viewed him favorably and 6% unfavorably. And 29% didn’t know enough about him to make a decision.

Six House Republicans, which included Reps. Paul Gosar & Majorie Swift Greene, voted in opposition to the bill asking Biden for a report that would only examine whether Putin was engaging in war crimes. Three House Republicans opposed a motion for the trade bill to proceed, and nine House members—including seven Republicans and Democrats Cori Bush and Ilhan Omar—opposed a motion allowing the oil embargo bill to progress to Biden’s desk.

Ten House Republicans also signed onto a bill introduced in February that would have prevented military aid to Ukraine until a border wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border is complete—in other words, not anytime during Biden’s presidency.

As bodies continue to pile up at Ukrainian railway stations, Mariupol movie theaters and maternity hospitals, America’s legislative body will return from recess in two weeks in the same position they were when they left town: with limited ability to penalize Russia and a lack of unity on the narrow means they do have.

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To Abby Vesoulis at


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