Congress Makes Russian Sanctions Trump-proof

Bipartisanship isn’t dead yet, not even in Donald Trump’s Washington. The House of Representatives just passed a sweeping new sanctions package against Russia, Iran and North Korea by 419 votes to 3.

The White House won’t say if the president will sign it or not. It’s no secret that he doesn’t like it, and the reason why is perfectly obvious—Congress is making it Trump-proof. He will not be able to strike a unilateral deal with Vladimir Putin and roll back these sanctions. Let him veto it if he wants. Congress can just override it. He doesn’t have the power to stop it.

Nor do the Russians. The Kremlin can hardly even retaliate. Not effectively, anyway. Case in point: Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov is threatening “sanitary sanctions” against McDonalds. He’s referring to what Russia did in 2014 when, angry about the last round of sanctions, it closed the largest McDonald’s in Moscow for three months so that officials could launch “safety inspections.”

These people do not understand how American politics and economics work. They’re projecting their own twisted norms onto us. In authoritarian crony capitalist Russia, all the largest businesses are yoked to the Kremlin. If Washington punishes one of those companies, it’s effectively punishing Russia’s government.

That’s not how it works over here. The United States government has nothing to do with McDonalds. The Kremlin could burn every McDonalds franchise in the entire country to the ground and it would hurt the American government less than if an entry-level Russian spy threw gravel at the capitol building.

Russia’s mafioso system makes it especially vulnerable to sanctions that target businesses and rich individuals personally, and nothing so far tops the precision-guided Magnitsky Act. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012, also with overwhelming bipartisan support, it singles out the Kremlin’s worst human rights abusers, freezes their assets, bans their travel to the United States and places their names on the US Treasury’s list of sanctioned individuals, preventing them from opening up a bank account anywhere in the world. Any bank that lets one of these people open an account would itself be in violation of American sanctions.

We know the Magnitsky Act is the near-perfect weapon because it works, and we know it works because Vladimir Putin rails at it constantly. Abolishing it is one of his principle foreign policy objectives, yet most Americans had never even heard of it until we found out earlier this month that Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya met Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort in Trump Tower last year and hoped to trade sanctions relief for dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The act is named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He worked at the Firestone Duncan law firm and accused Russian officials of ripping off hundreds millions of tax dollars. The Russian state responded by banishing the company’s co-founded Bill Browder, illegally signing over the business to convicted kidnapper and murderer Viktor Markelov, throwing Magnitsky into Moscow’s Butyrka prison, assaulting him while he was in custody and denying him adequate medical treatment. He died days before his scheduled release.

Magnitsky’s namesake act singles out 44 individual human rights abusers worldwide (the original list included only 18, all of them linked to the Kremlin) and makes them international pariahs. “When Putin reacts to the Magnitsky Act with such personal venom,” Browder said a few days ago in an interview with Jacob Weisberg at Slate, “he’s reacting because he feels like the entire purpose in life, which was to steal money from the Russian state and keep it offshore, is at risk. That’s why they’re ready to ruin relations with America over the Magnitsky Act by banning adoptions and doing other things, and that’s why so much money has been spent fighting the act and fighting me, the person behind the campaign to get Magnitsky Act in the United States and around the world.”

Browder estimates that roughly 10,000 people in Russia have stolen upwards of a trillion dollars from Russian taxpayers over the years. Only a tiny percentage of them are currently targeted by American sanctions, but many more could be in the future, and in any case, those named are the most notorious. More important is that the sanctions throw sand into the gears of Putin’s crony capitalist system. If members of his little oligarchy can’t spend the money they steal when and where they want to spend it, they have less incentive to bother working for him or stealing it in the first place.

These people are still rich, sure, even with the sanctions against them, but they don’t just want to be wealthy in Russia. They want to be wealthy in New York, London, Prague and Berlin. They want to be rich on the French Riviera. It’s nice enough owning a dacha on the Black Sea in Sochi or Yalta, but I’ve been to Yalta and it’s no Provence. If you’re vacationing there in the winter from Moscow you’ll surely appreciate its rugged coastline, its relative warmth and its palm trees. It’s provincial and tacky, though, and it underwhelms just about everyone who has ever been anywhere else. So if you’re a staggeringly wealthy Gazprom executive accustomed to whiling away your leisure time in the Swiss Alps, in Paris or in Tuscany, Yalta will seem as barren a destination as the center of North Dakota.

What happens to these people if the Putin regime is overthrown and they have to go into exile? They’ll have nowhere to go and no money to spend once they get there. Washington should never bail them out, ever. Don’t trade sanctions for “better relations” or “cooperation” in Syria or anywhere else. If they want to work with us against ISIS, that’s fine, but we should still treat them like the murderers and thieves that they are.  

In the Hobbesian realm of foreign policy, American national interests often clash with American values. The United States partners with medieval Saudi Arabia against Iran, for instance, and during the Cold War supported brutal Latin American military dictatorships so long as they were anti-communist. Washington has strangled local economies from Cuba to Iran in order to punish the hostile regimes in those countries but mostly ended up hurting innocent people instead. Our Russian sanctions are bigger, better, smarter and more American by punishing only the perps. Long may they live.  

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