Of the many ways President Donald Trump has polarized American public opinion, few have been as impactful as his dismissal of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Not everyone believes Trump. But his consistent denials have cast a shadow of doubt over an issue that should be as clear as day—and prevented meaningful action that could protect American democracy against another foreign attack.
The Treasury Department’s sanctions on September 10, targeting four “Russia-linked individuals for attempting to influence the U.S. electoral process”—and again yesterday, targeting a network associated with Kremlin-connected operative Yevgeniy Prigozhin—have not changed this fundamental fact: The 2020 election is no more protected from Russian meddling than the 2016 election was. Though four years have passed, the United States has done nothing to discourage another series of “active measures” aimed at the election. If anything, Trump’s steadfast support for Vladimir Putin despite countless provocations has invited further interference.
The 2020 election is no more protected from Russian meddling than the 2016 election was.
To understand why the recent sanctions fell short, it’s important to take a step back and examine what sanctions of this sort are meant to achieve. With the election coming up on November 3, the primary purpose of the sanctions should be to influence Moscow’s actions in the future: In short, to deter the Kremlin from materially interfering in the election, including by hacking and leaking sensitive information about candidates or modifying voter rolls. Effective deterrence relies on a combination of clarity and will. U.S. policy must draw unambiguous red lines and convince Moscow that, if it crosses those red lines, there will be serious consequences. For deterrence to work, Moscow must judge that the downside of these consequences outweighs the upside of interfering in the 2020 election.
It was this formula that inspired the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, first introduced by Senator Chris Van Hollen in January 2018. The DETER Act envisioned a legally mandated process after each federal election, in which the Director of National Intelligence would determine whether or not Russia interfered. If that assessment concluded that Russia indeed interfered, the President would need to choose from a menu of forceful sanctions actions. These include asset freezes on a selection of Russian state-owned banks and energy companies.
To curb political momentum for the DETER Act, President Trump signed Executive Order 13848 later in 2018, which amounted to a paltry approximation of the DETER Act itself. Since then, the Trump administration has used this executive authority just three times: first, in September 2019, targeting the already-sanctioned Internet Research Agency and its backer, Prigozhin; second, earlier this month, in the action against the four Russia-linked individuals; and third, in yesterday’s sanctions against Prigozhin’s network.
U.S. policy must draw unambiguous red lines and convince Moscow that, if it crosses those red lines, there will be serious consequences.
These actions have worked as the Trump administration intended—stalling the DETER Act and other legislative initiatives to check Kremlin malfeasance. But they have done nothing to deter Russia from meddling in the 2020 election. That’s because they mainly target individuals, none of whom likely hold substantial U.S. assets, and impose zero economic pressure on the Kremlin. In some ways, the actions are reminiscent of Iran’s missile attacks in response to the Trump administration’s killing of Qassem Suleimani: They are just enough to save face domestically. Alarmingly, they also signal to Putin that he can continue his assault on American democracy unimpeded.
Actual deterrence would require clearly laying out the consequences Moscow would face if it interferes in the 2020 election and making those consequences ones that would be economically damaging. Specifically, the consequences would need to be at least an order of magnitude stronger than existing sanctions. They must move beyond the current model of limited debt restrictions to full-blocking sanctions on some of Russia’s largest state-owned enterprises. In other words, the consequences would need to look like the ones put forward in the DETER Act.
Joe Biden drew such a red line in July. But President Trump has not followed suit. On the contrary, he has been conspicuously silent about the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny and continues to emphasize his desire to “get along” with Moscow. For the United States, the prospects of deterrence would be brightest if Trump and Biden stood shoulder-to-shoulder in declaring American democracy off-limits to foreign interference. Yet in the present circumstance, in which Biden signals resolve while Trump projects weakness, the incentive for the Kremlin to intervene is perversely heightened. It’s little wonder Moscow seems to be throwing its weight behind President Trump’s re-election bid, as a recent CIA assessment reportedly concluded.
The precarious position the United States finds itself in today, just six weeks before a hotly contested election, demonstrates why it’s so important to have a powerful deterrent in place against foreign interference. The best way to accomplish this is for the DETER Act or a comparable piece of legislation to become law. All presidents want as much latitude as possible on sanctions. But it’s simply inadequate to trust the sitting president to determine how best to safeguard American democracy. As we’re witnessing now, in the worst case, it can create a conflict of interest, in which an unscrupulous leader such as Trump recoils from real deterrence measures because he deems that foreign interference could benefit his electoral prospects.
The precarious position the United States finds itself in today demonstrates why it’s so important to have a powerful deterrent in place against foreign interference.
At this point, it may be too late to deter Russian interference in the November election. Trump is unlikely to have a change of heart, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has effectively blocked the DETER Act, the only viable path to deterrence that doesn’t run through the White House.
But for the next Congress, passing a strong electoral defense law should be a top priority. Of course, this is much more likely if Joe Biden pulls off a victory in November. We should not forget, though, that one of the most meaningful laws of the Trump era—the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)—was a robust Russia sanctions bill that passed despite Trump’s objections with a veto-proof majority. Depending on how the 2020 elections affect the balance in Congress, a repeat of this episode is not off the table.
For maximum impact, the domestic framework for sanctions-based deterrence should prelude the creation of a multilateral framework: in essence, a pact among allies akin to NATO’s Article 5, stating that interference in any of the signatories’ elections would result in a collective sanctions response. The United States could build such a framework via a joint EU–NATO declaration or through a new multilateral forum such as the D10.
We cannot predict the types of individuals who will occupy the Oval Office in the future. But we can be sure that foreign governments will continue attempting to interfere in U.S. elections. The American people deserve a strong legal framework to deter foreign attacks on their democratic process.
More from CNAS
CommentaryMake Russia Sanctions Effective Again
Today, U.S. sanctions against Russia are ineffective....
By Edward Fishman
CommentarySharper: U.S. Strategy in the Middle East
CNAS experts are sharpening the conversation surrounding the future of U.S. strategy in the Middle East....
By Kaleigh Thomas, Chris Estep & Cole Stevens
CommentaryFollowing Fresh US Sanctions, Will China Bail out Iran?
Iran has increasing economic and political motivation to lean into its strategic partnership with China....
By Emily Jin
CommentaryNo, Trump has not been ‘tough’ on Russia
The simple fact is that even harsh-looking sanctions have little impact when there’s zero political will to enforce them....
By Edward Fishman , James Lamond & Max Bergmann