Monday, April 10, 2017

Russia: Background and U.S. Interests

Since 1991, Congress has played a key role in the development of U.S. policy toward the Russian Federation. In that time, U.S.-Russian relations have gone through positive and negative periods. Each new U.S. Administration has sought to improve U.S.-Russian relations at the start of its tenure, and the Donald J. Trump Administration has expressed similar intentions to rebuild constructive relations with Moscow. In doing so, however, the Administration has indicated it intends to adhere to core international commitments and principles, including retention of sanctions against Russia. Moving forward, Congress is expected to actively engage with the Administration on questions concerning U.S.-Russian relations.

Over the last five years, Congress has monitored and, together with the executive branch, taken steps to respond to significant concerns about Russian domestic and foreign policy developments. These developments include a trend toward increasingly authoritarian governance since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidential post in 2012; Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and sponsorship and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine; violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; Moscow’s ongoing intervention in Syria in support of Bashar al Assad’s government; increased military activity oriented toward Europe; and, according to the U.S. intelligence community, cyber-related influence operations that have extended to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

U.S. responses to these developments have included the imposition of sanctions related to human rights violations, Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and malicious cyber activity. The United States has also led NATO in developing a new military posture in Eastern Europe designed to reassure allies and deter further aggression. The Barack Obama Administration, together with Congress, condemned Russia’s military support to Assad’s government, especially its air strikes on Aleppo.

Members of Congress have proposed to make permanent, until the crisis in Ukraine is resolved, existing Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia and to expand sanctions related to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and intervention in Syria. Members also have proposed to provide congressional oversight over any potential sanctions relief.

In addition, Congress has begun to investigate Russian interference in U.S. elections. In January 2017, the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence announced inquiries into Russian cyber activities and “active measures” surrounding the U.S. election and more broadly. The Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Judiciary Committees launched or announced related investigations. Members also have proposed a variety of other independent or joint commissions, committees, or investigations.

At the same time, U.S. policymakers have identified multiple areas in which U.S. and Russian interests are or could be compatible. The U.S. and Russia have successfully cooperated on key issues, including nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, support for military operations in Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear program, the International Space Station, and the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. The United States and Russia also have identified other areas of cooperation, such as counterterrorism, counternarcotics, counterpiracy, and global health. Although U.S.-Russian trade and investment were relatively low before sanctions were imposed, economic ties at the firm and sector levels have in some cases been substantial. In 2012, Congress authorized permanent normal trade relations for Russia. In the same year, the U.S. government supported Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

This report provides background information on Russian politics, economics, and military issues. It also discusses a number of key issues for Congress concerning Russia’s foreign relations and the U.S.-Russian relationship.

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