The US Announced New Sanctions on Russia. But Cory Gardner Wants to Go Further.

The U.S. State Department sent Russia reeling when it announced Wednesday that it would impose new, harsher sanctions after it had determined that Moscow was responsible for the chemical attack against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain this spring. The twofold sanctions represent a firm response to Russian aggression, but in light of President Donald Trump’s deferential performance in Helsinki and reports that Russian state hackers continue to target American politicians and election infrastructure, some Republicans in Congress would like to see an even tougher approach: designating the country as a state sponsor of terror.

Colorado Republican Cory Gardner introduced legislation that would order the State Department to determine whether Russia should be officially designated as a sponsor of terror shortly after the Skripal attack, in April. At the time, he tells me in a phone interview, his bill didn’t make much of a splash. But in the days following Trump’s summit with Putin in Helsinki, the concept picked up steam among his colleagues. His bill garnered additional supporters, and has more recently been added to South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham’s grab-bag sanctions measure alongside Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, which Graham has described as the sanctions bill “from hell.”

Gardner’s bill would require the State Department to come to a conclusion within 90 days. If Russia were to receive the label, it would be banned from American defense exports, blocked from sales of key American products, face restrictions on U.S. assistance, and more. Only four countries currently hold the designation, which is reserved for those who have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” — North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Sudan.

Gardner and his allies argue that Russia’s ongoing incursions in Ukraine; its responsibility for an attack on a civilian airliner by pro-Russian rebels in July 2014, which killed all 298 passengers onboard; its targeted assassination attempts of former spies, including Skripal and other dissidents on foreign soil; and its close relationship with Iran and Syria are more than enough evidence to add the country to the list. Gardner’s office was involved in urging the Trump administration to re-designate North Korea as a sponsor of terror last winter, which gave him the idea to push for Russia’s inclusion, as well.

“This is something that is long overdue. And the consideration of this alone is a diplomatic embarrassment — that your country could even be considered for this,” says Gardner.

He isn’t the first person to think the State Department should address the question.

ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella reported in May that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered officials to compile evidence in favor of placing Russia on the list after the attempt against Skripal in Salisbury, which involved a nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union and was quickly identified by British law enforcement as a Russian attack. But within just two days, Rotella reports, they were told to stop working on it. “There are a lot of issues that we have to work on together with Russia,” a U.S. official told him. “Designating them would interfere with our ability to do that.”

Others, such as Daniel Byman, foreign policy editor at Lawfare and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, have argued that Russia exhibits the characteristics of a state sponsor of terror, but adding it to the list would be counterproductive.

“Vladimir Putin’s government is guilty of many crimes, ranging from bombing civilians in Syria to meddling in U.S. elections to assassinating dissidents in the United Kingdom and other countries,” he wrote in April. But, he added, the risks of using the designation on a country with more leverage than others on the list may outweigh the benefits. Russia might increase its support to hostile regimes and non-state actors, wreak havoc on nearby U.S. allies, “and otherwise make a bad situation worse” in retaliation, he wrote.

Gardner admits that the move would be a heavy response: “There is no doubt that designating a country as a state sponsor of terror is the sledgehammer of sanctions.”

“But again, look at what they have done,” he says. “I don’t think commercial ties can make up for the fact that you have a country that is now poisoning people on foreign soil, murdering journalists, corrupting cyber systems around the globe, spreading that instability in the Middle East, and all the while depriving its people of a thriving rights and economy. I think it would be incredibly eye-opening to have this 90-day, formal procedure rolled out, and let the world see the bad acts of Russia and Vladimir Putin.”

Other critics note that the State Department has been uneven in designating state sponsors of terror, ignoring countries like Pakistan that would fit the bill, because of diplomatic concerns. Gardner acknowledges there are inconsistencies in the government’s approach to the issue. “There ought to be more conversations about countries that merit such designation,” he says.

But, he warns, “if you do it too often, you can weaken the power of the hand that you’re trying to deal.”

The senator tells me he has not spoken to the Trump administration about his effort. But it doesn’t take a conversation to know the White House and Gardner’s office are on different pages about Russian president Vladimir Putin. Trump has repeatedly praised Putin and sided with him over the U.S. intelligence community about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Asked what sort of message the clear dissonance among leading Republicans sends to American allies, Gardner suggests the situation isn’t particularly strange.

“The beauty of our system is it’s designed to be in three separate branches of government,” Gardner responds. He says he oftentimes explains how Congress independently feels about a given issue during his meetings with foreign leaders as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, drawing distinctions from Trump’s comments and tweets.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone to see Congress leading in an area where perhaps the executive branch is not,” he tells me.

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