Below is my column in the Hill on a proposal for legislation to address allies supporting Russia through gas contracts. Congress can constitutionally freeze aid to countries undermining sanctions by buying cut-rate gas from the Putin regime. In the meantime, India’s major gas contract pumping money into the Russian economy will not be treated by the Biden Administration as a sanctions violation. Congress can force a bright line on foreign aid that aligns with our public and moral positions on Ukraine. Under its Article I powers, Congress can condition such foreign aid and, if necessary, override a veto from President Joe Biden.
Here is the column:
As Russian forces lay waste to Ukraine in an unprovoked war, U.S. senators acted this week to “send an unmistakable message that the U.S. Senate stands with Ukraine, stands against Putin.” The message was a resolution supporting an investigation into war crimes in the conflict.
In reality, there are legal barriers to holding Russia’s Vladimir Putin responsible for war crimes, even though the evidence of such crimes mounts by the day. The fact is, international economics rather than international law is more likely to force an end to Putin’s regime. Yet that effort is being undermined by our own allies, who continue to give billions in life support to Putin’s otherwise comatose economy. (In fairness to countries like Germany, the Biden administration also initially resisted severing Russian gas, even though America buys a far lower percentage of its energy from Russia.)
Unfortunately, Congress is spending time on dubious “economic” measures that are politically popular but likely legally ineffectual. Take the bill “Yachts for Ukraine,” which combines a brilliantly sound-bited title with a universal revulsion for yacht-owning oligarchs. In reality, it is far easier to seize a yacht than to keep it; most of these oligarchs are likely to recover their yachts, and might even successfully sue the United States for damages and costs.
What sustains Putin is oil, not oligarchs. Yet, from the outset, President Biden emphasized that “The goal was to maximize impact on Putin and Russia and minimize the harm on us and our allies and friends around the world.”
Well, it is time to choose. You cannot “stand with Ukraine” while funding Russia.
Some countries are openly opportunistic. Russia on the ropes means gas on the cheap. When Russia unleashed hell on Ukraine, the first in line in Moscow was Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who openly sought “a major gas pipeline deal.” India was not far behind in inking a deal for cut-rate Russian gas.
The Biden administration warned China that it would take action should Beijing help Russia evade Western sanctions, but it has struggled to avoid criticizing India, even when India abstained from the vote by 141 nations in the United Nations to denounce Russia for its invasion.
A State Department cable recently warned diplomats that India and the United Arab Emirates were “in Russia’s camp” regarding Ukraine. (When the cable was leaked, it was promptly recalled by the Biden administration.)
India has entirely decoupled its diplomacy from morality — and from the teachings of Gandhi, who once warned that “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as it is to cooperate with the good.”
In response, Congress should draw a clear line for both the Biden administration and our allies.
We have an inherently conflicted foreign policy: First, we ask U.S. citizens to bear the costs of cutting off Russian aid and of sending billions to Ukraine to fight Russia, and then we send billions to foreign countries that are giving money to Russia through gas deals. It is like draining a pool on one end while pumping the water back in at the other end.
The solution? Congress should pass a law that freezes foreign aid to countries purchasing Russian energy products in circumvention of sanctions. That money could then be redirected to Ukraine or returned to U.S. taxpayers in the form of gas-price relief.
In 2019, U.S. foreign assistance totaled an estimated $48.18 billion, or 1 percent of the federal budget authority. The objectives of foreign aid have been reduced to five basic categories: “Peace and Security, Investing in People, Governing Justly and Democratically, Economic Growth, and Humanitarian Assistance.” Helping Russia to evade sanctions is antithetical to all five of these goals, as well as U.S. interests and foreign policy.
In 2019, Congress opposed an effort by the Trump administration to freeze foreign aid. Congress itself, however, can condition these funds. It is entirely reasonable to condition aid on the respect of U.S. sanctions on Russia. Indeed, every aid dollar given to Pakistan, India or other countries effectively allows those countries to spend another dollar in subsidizing Russia.
In the recent U.N. vote, the world stood largely united against Russia’s invasion. Only five nations voted against the measure, including the United Arab Emirates. Thirty-five countries could not muster the moral courage to even condemn the invasion, including India, Pakistan, South Africa and other major U.S. aid recipients. The list included 16 African nations.
The inclusion of South Africa was particularly striking, since many countries and companies supported the Sullivan Principles and the boycotting of South Africa under apartheid. It is a country reborn in the cause of freedom from tyranny. Nelson Mandela famously declared that “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” It is now criticizing the West for its actions on Ukraine while refusing to condemn Russia.
Congress cannot legislate morality in its own citizens, let alone those of other countries. It can, however, use our foreign aid to hold the line against tyranny. It is not possible “to maximize impact on Putin and Russia and minimize the harm on us and our allies and friends around the world.” We have to choose a side, as do our allies. They can choose petrol over principles if they wish — but they should do so without the aid of American taxpayers.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.