A top Senate Democrat is warning in harsh terms that Russia must face “consequences” for its actions in Syria and beyond, and that the U.S. “must revisit its overall approach” to the nuclear-armed government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The blistering statement by Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Russia specialist, underscores the growing bipartisan fury in Congress with Moscow as it tangles with the U.S. over Syria and Ukraine and allegedly meddles in America’s elections.
The statement also follows the collapse of U.S.-Russian efforts to impose a cease-fire in Syria, and comes as the Obama administration considers imposing new sanctions on Russia over its role in Syria.
“Russia clearly has no interest in counter-terrorism cooperation, humanitarian relief, or political progress in Syria,” Cardin said. “Through its words and deeds, it appears Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not a partner for peace.”
The Obama administration said Monday it was suspending its bilateral negotiations with Russia over a Syrian cease-fire. The decision came amid ongoing Russian and Syrian bombing of the city of Aleppo, parts of which are held by rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In apparent retaliation, Putin announced that Russia was scrapping a 16-year-old nuclear nonproliferation agreement with the U.S. involving destroying plutonium stockpiles. On Wednesday, Russia said it was suspending an agreement with the U.S. to cooperate on nuclear and energy research, Reuters reported.
Asked about Russia’s apparent use of nuclear security as a bargaining chip, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “I think you’d have to discuss with my Russian counterpart the true intentions of Mr. Putin and this particular policy decision. What I can tell you is that it’s certainly within the national interests of the United States of America for us to prioritize nuclear security, and I think any impartial observer would conclude that it’s within the national interests of Russia for nuclear security to be prioritized.”
Cardin, who represents Maryland and has long advocated punishing Russia over its human rights violations, also has in recent days expressed alarm over allegations that Russia has been hacking U.S. election systems — a frustration felt on both sides of the aisle.
In his Wednesday statement, Cardin said he plans to “explore options the Congress can employ to hold Russia accountable.” One option is likely imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its assistance to Assad, an Arab dictator the U.S. already has declared must step down in order for Syria to ever return to normal.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican from California, has been pushing the sanctions idea in his chamber. He’s introduced a bill on the issue along with the ranking Democrat on the House committee, New York’s Eliot Engel.
“I continue to support the legislation I introduced, which would crack down on the Assad regime and any government or individual that supports it. Russia certainly fits the bill,” Engel told POLITICO in a statement Wednesday.
A U.S. official told POLITICO that the Obama administration is considering leveling sanctions against Russia linked to its assistance to Assad, but described any such move as one of a range of options being discussed. State Department spokesmen have also not ruled out the idea in recent days.
The U.S. has imposed economic and other sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, but has been wary of using the tactic in regard to Syria, seeing Moscow as a necessary player in peace efforts. Some European countries, who also are sanctioning Russia due to Ukraine, are now weighing similar sanctions over Syria.
Although the U.S. said it was cutting off the negotiations on the cease-fire, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke via phone to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Wednesday. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told POLITICO that just because the cooperation was cut off, that didn’t preclude communication.
“They talked about a number of issues,” Toner said later during the daily State Department press briefing. “It would be irresponsible for Secretary Kerry to not raise our concerns about what is happening in Syria.”
In a major speech in Brussels on Tuesday, Kerry signaled that the administration’s patience with Russia is wearing thin.
“People who are serious about making peace behave differently from the way Russia has chosen to behave,” Kerry said.
But he held out the possibility that the U.S. might be open to renewed cooperation on “solving common challenges.”
“We want to work with Russia.,” Kerry said, noting that he had “probably spent as much time with the Russian foreign minister as I have with any other foreign diplomat.”
The Obama administration also has been clear that it will continue to seek multilateral negotiations to try to pacify Syria, where estimates of the dead in the five-year-old civil war now reach half a million.