Why did a group of GOP lawmakers spend the Independence Day holiday huddled with Russian officials in Moscow?
Presumably, this was to lay the groundwork for President Trump’s upcoming Helsinki, Finland summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin, himself, was not present at the meetings, but the lawmakers returned to the states, prepared to pave the way for a strengthened Russia on the world stage.
“You do something and nobody ever sits back and analyzes, 'Well, is it working?’” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told the Washington Examiner. “And I think you'd be hard-pressed to say that sanctions against Russia are really working all that well.”
“I've always been concerned about the double-edged sword of economic sanctions can be used by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to blame America for any lack of economic progress — but again, on the ground, they don't seem to be having a real horrible economic effect, not in Moscow anyway,” said Johnson, who also chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee for Europe.
What Senator Johnson would prefer is that the U.S. target Putin’s allies and the oligarchs that surround him.
“They would love individuals who are sanctioned to have those sanctions released so they can start traveling around again,” Johnson said. “They do sting.”
“My sense is that the targeted sanctions to the oligarchs, to the members of government, are the ones that really sting and probably [offer] the best chance of affecting their behavior," he said. "The Russian people, they don't care if an oligarch can't buy a $10 million mansion in London.”
Johnson is in an odd position. He wants to build up friendship with Russia (as seems to be the marching orders for all those operating under Trump), but how do you do that and not appear weak? Weakness is what the former KGB agent (Putin) is looking for, and he’ll suss out that weakness in the private, one-on-one meeting that is planned between he and President Trump before the July 16 summit.
“When ruthless, strong people perceive weakness, they pounce,” said Johnson, who chairs the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. “Russia wants to reconstitute, basically, its sphere of influence that they had in the Soviet Union. So, you understand that, and if you don’t want to let that happen, you’ve got to push back with strength and resolve … but that doesn’t mean that we have to be enemies.”
Not enemies, but not suckers, either.
The U.S. has issued sanctions against Russia for several reasons. For starters, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Those aggressive, destabilizing moves were met with sanctions against Russia’s banking and energy sectors.
Also, after it was discovered that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election, President Obama expelled a number of Russian diplomats and intelligence officials.
Months later, lawmakers passed a broad package to codify those sanctions in law and mandate additional punishment for the Ukraine and election controversies, as well as Putin’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Disturbingly, the GOP with Donald Trump as the face began by softening the language towards Russia in the GOP platform at the 2016 RNC Convention.
Trump, as president, has been equally reluctant to call out our greatest geopolitical foes, openly courting Putin, while dragging his feet about implementing sanctions.
And now, this.
After a couple of days in Moscow, Johnson feels we may have acted hastily.
“I've been pretty upfront that the election interference — as serious as that was, and unacceptable — is not the greatest threat to our democracy,” he said. “We've blown it way out of proportion — [as if it's] the greatest threat to democracy ... We need to really honestly assess what actually happened, what effect did it have, and what effect are our sanctions actually having, positively and negatively.”
In those meetings, Johnson says they talked about the 2016 election interference, condemned the release of hacked DNC emails, only to have the Russian officials push back and accuse the U.S. of similar behavior.
“We would bring it up, and they would push back with all the ways we interfere with their politics in terms of funding of NGOs, and Radio Free Europe and Voice of America," Johnson said. "We pushed back hard. I think they're certainly on notice that there should be no meddling in 2018.”
That debate dominated the roughly five hours of meetings scheduled during the trip. “Nobody yielded,” he said.
Yeah. I’m sure you guys totally put them on notice.