Americans who have been wondering where Republican spines have gone when it comes to confronting Russian aggression should get acquainted with Sen. Cory Gardner’s (R-Colo.) backbone.
It qualifies as bravery in today’s political environment, sadly, for GOPs to push for tougher sanctions in response to the Kremlin’s bad behavior—which, to the chagrin of the White House, the Senate did by an overwhelmingly veto-proof margin a year ago—but it’s a bold step further to push for Russia to face the ultimate sanctions as a state sponsor of terror.
A small club of especially nasty foreign powers have earned this designation: Iran, North Korea, Syria and Sudan. They’re all “countries determined by the secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” according to the State Department’s concise description of how a despot earns admission to the group.
The unilateral sanctions that accompany such a damning label are, necessarily, mighty: restrictions on arms sales, U.S. business, dual-use exports and foreign aid, as well as penalties for entities that continue certain transactions with state sponsors of terrorism.
On April 26, before Helsinki was known to be a gleam in President Donald Trump’s eye and soon after the first Novichok poisonings had struck Britain (the suspects have now been identified as Russian), Gardner introduced a bill with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that would give the State Department 90 days to come back to Congress with a determination—in an unclassified, shareable form—on whether Russia “meets the criteria for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.” Similar language on North Korea was included in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act that became law last August; Kim Jong-un’s regime was put back on the terror list Nov. 20.
North Korea got relisted in part for playing fast-and-loose with a deadly nerve agent in a busy international airport in an op to assassinate the dictator’s half-brother, as well as the torture of deceased U.S. hostage Otto Warmbier—actions that signified “a consistent pattern of terror,” according to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.).
In an April op-ed for The New York Times, Gardner argued that the evidence for sticking Russia on the list included “active information warfare against Western democracies, including meddling in the 2016 United States elections,” as well as Russia’s warfare with ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria, its 2008 invasion of Georgia and 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and attacks on dissidents including deploying a deadly nerve agent on British soil—reportedly transported in a small perfume bottle that was haphazardly discarded after the assassination attempt and killed the woman who found it, spraying it on her skin with the thought that she’d found free fragrance.
“I think it’s time to very concisely and clearly lay out the grievances the world has with Russia right now—in a frame not of ‘oh, it’s aggression,’ but as a bad actor doing evil things,” Gardner told his hometown paper after introducing the bill.
“It’s time we give serious consideration to stepping up toward Russia in a way that we have not done yet,” he added. “Vladimir Putin clearly understands strength and he manipulates weakness. The United States, our partners and allies must show total strength against this Russian menace.” Hallelujah, clarity!
On Tuesday—the fourth anniversary of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 being shot down over Ukraine by a missile from Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade based in Kursk, killing 298—Gardner breathed fresh life into the bill. And it’s the forum that counts: Gardner plugged the legislation standing alongside Senate Republican leaders at their weekly policy luncheon media availability. And the Colorado senator was able to make the pitch when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), clearly perturbed by the Trump-Putin press conference, was in a maybe-more-sanctions mood, telling reporters “there’s a possibility that we may well take up legislation” related to election meddling.
Gardner rattled off a few of the reasons why Russia is a state sponsor of terror and pitched his bill. “I hope that legislation will be heard soon,” he added.
It’s no surprise that Gardner, a seasoned sanctions champion who has consistently pushed for not only passing tougher penalties on bad actors but tightening the enforcement vise, is the one to be doing this. He’s the author of the North Korea Sanctions Policy and Enhancement Act, which imposed standalone mandatory sanctions that marked a congressional first, signed by President Barack Obama in 2016. Gardner’s relentless crackdown on the kingdom of Kim and calling the tyrant a “whack job” in May prompted North Korea to crack open their insult thesaurus and brand the senator a “psychopath… mixed in with human dirt” who “has lost basic judgment and body hair.”
Of course, the main roadblock to passage of Gardner’s bill is Trump, who would likely be itching to put his veto pen to paper at the first gasp of a complaint from Putin. In order to deliver a presidential-scream-tweet-inducing veto-proof majority, Congress would have to pull together the same way it unified on sanctions.
But even getting this bill to the hearing stage would be impactful, as experts like former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul—now wanted by the Kremlin—as well as dissidents like Vladimir Kara-Murza (survivor of two Kremlin poisonings) and families impacted by Russian terrorism can testify in an open, highly publicized hearing. Douse Russia’s terror with sunlight.
Maybe it can help prevent another person from suffering like Anthony Maslin who, as father of three young children murdered on MH17, beseeched Trump to accept Russia’s guilt as “irrefutable fact,” or Charlie Rowley, the partner of Novichok victim Dawn Sturgess who is not only battling his own poisoning in intensive care but is in agony over the loss of his love.