By voting in new sanctions against Russia, Congress torpedoed the White House’s dream of rapprochement with the Kremlin. Yet its real target was not a foreign foe but an unpopular Republican president threatened by impeachment over alleged electoral manipulation. With the commander in chief dogged by perceived softness on Moscow and crippled by plummeting approval ratings, Congress chose foreign policy as the weapon with which to deliver its coup de grâce.
The besieged president in this story is not Donald Trump in 2017 but Richard Nixon in 1973. Ostensibly targeting the Watergate White House’s controversial policy of détente with the Soviet Union, Democrat hawks joined forces with Republican deserters to push through the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which placed trade restrictions on Communist-bloc countries that prohibited free emigration, particularly concerning Jews.
That the USSR had just agreed to reduce travel restrictions mattered little to Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a neocon Democrat hoping to use the amendment as his cheap ticket to the presidency. Jackson never made it past the 1976 primaries, but his eponymous legislation soured US-Russian relations for half a century. Today’s lawmakers seem hellbent on repeating the same mistake.
Jackson-Vanik proved that opportunistically exploiting foreign policy for domestic political gain is counterproductive in the short term and dangerous in the long. Indeed, Jewish emigration from the USSR, which the amendment was specifically designed to promote, actually declined in the years immediately following its passage. Having previously made serious concessions in the name of détente, Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev retaliated against the legislation by reviving the Cold War abroad and cracking down domestically on precisely those groups Jackson-Vanik claimed to embolden.
A similar pattern has already emerged with the sanctions newly codified in last week’s bill. Since their introduction in 2014, they have done nothing to roll back Russia’s occupation of Crimea. If anything, Moscow has become more willing to assert its interests abroad. Over the past three years, Russia has intervened militarily to rescue Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria and support Iranian proxies fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. Not to mention the main catalyst for this new legislation: the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the US presidential election.
Throughout all of this, sanctions have singularly failed to weaken President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power, and his popularity rating continues to hover stubbornly around the 80 percent mark. Condemning the latest bill as an “unacceptable” step that “destroys international relations and international law,” Putin has shown no sign of being cowed. He vowed instead to retaliate against what he called American “impudence towards our country,” and has already ordered cuts in the number of US diplomats in Moscow.
As for the notion that the pain inflicted by sanctions may set the people against the regime, a recent poll by the independent Levada Center found that 70 percent of respondents urged Russia to double down on its policies rather than seek compromise—a figure that has remained unchanged since 2014. Far from undermining Putin, sanctions play directly into his core narrative of Russia as a besieged fortress surrounded by external enemies and assisted by internal collaborators. As a result, the bill is likely to make it harder still for American pro-democracy and civil-liberties groups to engage with the Russian opposition.
Most importantly, by preventing the president from relaxing the sanctions without congressional approval, the bill passed on Friday in the Senate threatens to emulate the worst aspect of its predecessor: the near-impossibility of repeal. As Jackson-Vanik showed, once Congress has added such a powerful instrument to its arsenal, it won’t readily part with it. Long after the Soviet Union itself receded into history, the zombie amendment continued to be used to punish Russia for a host of entirely unrelated issues, from opposition to the Iraq War to trade disputes involving frozen chicken. Indeed, Congress allowed Obama finally to repeal Jackson-Vanik in 2012 only on condition that he agree to replace it with new sanctions in the form of the Magnitsky Act, which targets Russian officials thought to be implicated in the death of a lawyer who had blown the whistle on a major corruption ring linked to the Kremlin.
Sanctions are not a toy. By making a key foreign-policy instrument hostage to domestic political concerns, the bill will seriously limit American diplomatic leverage for years to come. Nixon decried opposition to détente as “a form of unilateral disarmament” that can “deprive us of many of our most effective diplomatic weapons”: the ability to engage with Russia on matters of mutual benefit and reward good behavior. Given the prevalence of Russophobia in American politics and its usefulness as one of the last socially acceptable forms of chauvinism, it would take a brave and foolish congressperson to support relaxing the sanctions should Russia improve its human-rights record and embark on a more constructive foreign policy. This is a dangerous game, because it degrades American leverage and decreases the costs of Russian bad behavior: A country with nothing to gain is as threatening as one that has nothing to lose.
As it stands, perhaps the only lesson the Kremlin can draw from Jackson-Vanik and its successor is that it does not matter whether Russia is communist or capitalist, whether it supports American wars (Afghanistan) or opposes them (Iraq), whether it retrenches internationally (as under Gorbachev) or reasserts itself (as under Putin); in short, it’s not what Russia does so much as what Russia is that makes it a foe. What incentive, then, for Putin or his successors to ever bring the country in from the cold?
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