WASHINGTON (CN) – Experts appearing before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday said economic sanctions could deter Russia from interfering in future U.S. elections, but only if there is better coordination between the White House and Congress.
Successfully deterring Russian meddling in U.S. elections will only come through “stitching together a whole of government effort,” said Heather Conley, George W. Bush’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Eurasian affairs.
The hearing focused on how to better enforce sanctions imposed on Russia and, besides Conley, it featured testimony from Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia; Daniel Fried, former assistant secretary of state for European and Asian affairs under President Barack Obama; and Rachel Ziemba, of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for a New American Security.
Conley told the senate panel that efforts to rein in Russia have been lacking to date.
“If this was a normal situation and our country was attacked the way it was in November 2016, we would have created a type of 9/11 Commission that would have looked at the structural impact [of the 2016 interference],” she said. “We did none of that. We’re most vulnerable when our institutions don’t work.
“What Russians are doing is going through our strategic seams: domestic, international, state and federal. Wherever that division line is, they are finding it cheaply and are pulsing it,” she said.
According to Fried, effective options for sanctions on Russia’s finance sector could include steps against new Russian sovereign debt, prohibiting new debt financing for Russia state-owned companies and blocking some state-run banks.
But that can be risky, he said.
“Fully blocking sanctions against all state-owned banks could trigger financial blowback that would not be in the U.S. or broader Western interest,” Fried explained.
On cyber security, he called for an aggressive U.S. stance pursuing financial sanctions against hackers and their sources of funding.
Denying some technology exports might also be effective, he said.
Fried suggested the administration also consider reconstituting the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, or CoCom, a program established just after World War II and implemented during the Cold War.
CoCom forced an arms embargo on nations outside of the Western bloc and ended in 1994.
Sanctions on the energy sector could also be ramped up, but Fried said this method too can be dicey if the U.S. targets current energy production instead of future production.
Targeting current centers opens the door to “less scrupulous actors” who will step in where the U.S. and EU step out, “might perversely give the Putin regime a windfall,” he said.
Michael McFaul told the senators that President Donald Trump should publicly and privately signal to Putin the real consequences of meddling in the U.S.
McFaul attended the July Helsinki meeting between Trump and Putin, and he said what he saw there convinced him Trump’s approach to bilateral relationships could be counterintuitive.
“The administration is doing a pretty good job. It’s just the president that doesn’t seem to support their policy and that has consequences,” McFaul said.
“It’s not just that the administration can do everything on their own and the president won’t mess it up,” he continued. “We saw that in Helsinki when Putin came out and set him up to create this false moral equivalency between the people that Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted and the  Russian agents Putin put on [to hack the Democratic National Committee.”
While “being friendly” and fomenting diplomacy with world leaders – even autocratic ones – isn’t always a bad thing, it comes down to results, he said.
“When we engage with Soviets and autocratic regimes, sometimes it is in our national interest to push back and only occasionally cooperate… every meeting between Putin and Trump should be judged by what American interests are advanced,” he said.
Targeting oligarchs – and not the Russian people – is key, the panel agreed.
Last July, the Senate passed Combating America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act or CAATSA.
In one section, the Treasury Secretary, in coordination with other intelligence and senior State Department officials, were instructed to submit a detailed report featuring a “who’s who” of Russian oligarchs and others close Putin.
Those findings, published in January, comprised the “Kremlin Report” but the public list was indiscriminate and cribbed from a Forbes list of Russian billionaires.
Fried said he has never seen the classified list, only the public version which he lamented was “mishandled” when the administration first rolled it out.
“Are there oligarchs closer to Putin that we haven’t targeted? Should sanctions be imposed against Putin himself?” Committee chairman Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho Crapo asked Fried.
Fried did not say whether Putin should be targeted but referred back to two pieces of legislation in Congress and the need for unity between the White House and the lawmakers who can help the president enforce sanctions.
The bills penalizing Russia are the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, or DASKA, and the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Readiness Act, or DETER.
DASKA bans support of Russian oil development and other state owned oil projects, while DETER, which co-sponsor Sen. Lindsey Graham recently called a “bill from hell,” restricts financial transactions on critical sectors like energy, military and banking among countries proven to interfere in U.S. elections. Ultimately, the president needs to focus on the finer points, McFaul said.
“I’d like him to start reading the talking points his advisors made for him. I’m serious. There’s consensus in the administration about what should be done,” McFaul said. “This may sound strange, but I actually see a lot of continuity between the Obama administration and this one on general policy toward Russia … the problem I see is that the president doesn’t agree with his own administration’s policy and every now and then, when he goes behind closed doors, he lets you know that.”