Opinion writer

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, makes an opening statement during a confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson as secretary of state in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 11. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

In contrast to the president, senators from both sides of the aisle have spoken up strongly for the need to take a tough stand against Russia, which is increasingly aggressive internationally and repressive at home.

In a letter to President Trump a group of eight GOP senators wrote today:

The United States should unequivocally condemn – and take proactive steps to stem – the continued Russian aggression in Ukraine. Russia has invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula, in violation of international law, and has directly abetted the so-called “separatist rebels” in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, over 10,000 Ukrainians have died in this tragic conflict, and there are as many as 1.5 million internally displaced persons because of the violence. The most recent escalation of fighting along the “line of contact” in eastern Ukraine should serve as a reminder of Russia’s nefarious intentions.

The Administration should maintain the current U.S. sanctions regime against Russia and Russian entities – and to impose new sanctions as necessary and merited by Russian behavior –unless Ukraine’s control over Crimea is restored, Russia fully respects the Minsk agreements, and ceases all efforts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty.  Furthermore, we ask you to expedite the provision of defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine, and we were encouraged that Secretary of State Tillerson supported this position during his confirmation hearing.

They warned against bargaining away Syria’s fate. (“The United States should not enter into any military or diplomatic agreement with Russia regarding Syria’s future until Moscow halts its military operations that have caused immense damage and human suffering and ceases support for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad.”) They also condemned Russia’s cyberwarfare against the West. They concluded with this: “Most importantly, we urge you to relay to Moscow that the values of democracy, human rights, transparency, and accountability are central to U.S. foreign policy, that these values are non-negotiable, and that the United States will continue to advance these values globally, including with regard to Russia. President Putin must know that the United States remains a beacon of hope and democracy around the world, and will stand up for what is right.”

The willingness to call out Putin’s repression at home and to defend American democracy has oddly become a dividing line between tough-minded senators (both Democrats and Republicans) and senators more interesting in aligning themselves with and rationalizing Trump’s behavior. The reason is obvious: Trump is doing Putin’s bidding by denigrating the West’s democratic institutions and avoiding any talk about Russian kleptocracy, human rights repression and war crimes in Syria. (It doesn’t help the U.S. image any, by the way, when the U.S. president keeps his own business enterprise and uses the White House to enrich his kids.)

Putin has looted tens of billions from his country, according to U.S. intelligence sources, but the U.S. virtually never talks about that. Ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) last year made a persuasive case for revealing more of that information. In response to Russian hacking during the U.S. elections, Schiff urged President Obama to start “revealing corruption within the Kremlin and Putin’s own corruption.” Weakening Putin at home and upsetting his narrative that Russia is on an equal moral plane with the United States should be part and parcel of our national security approach to Russia.

Ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Ben Cardin (R-Md.) took up a similar theme in remarks in the committee today. “I just want to say one word that concerned me about President Trump trying to drive a moral equivalency between the murderous conduct of Mr. Putin and the activities of our own country,” he said. “There is no equivalency whatsoever, and I think that did a disservice to the service men and women who have really defended our country and our democratic values, and I needed to say something.” He praised ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stating at her hearing that sanctions against Moscow should not be lifted until “Russia complies with the Helsinki commitments and withdraws from Crimea and their interference with Ukraine and they uphold all the terms in the Minsk agreements.” Like Republicans, Cardin sees that Putin’s external behavior and internal behavior are linked. “Washington needs to send a message of resolve because Moscow will continue to interfere in our democratic process and those of our allies. It will continue to violate the sovereignty of its neighbors, it will push until it’s stopped.”

We don’t imagine Trump understands or cares much about all this. (According to one news report he seemed unclear even what the New START agreement was.) Documentation, release and strategic use of information relating to corruption in Russia as well as ongoing attention to Putin’s repressive regime should be kept in the spotlight. That likely won’t come from the White House but surely the State Department and Congress can pick up the slack. The only ones who might object would be Putin, Trump and the latter’s apologists.