Senate Democrats introduce bill to sanction Russians over Taliban bounties

Senate Democrats Thursday introduced a new bill to that would require President Trump to impose sanctions on any Russian official or entity that is found to be involved in offering bounties to the Taliban for attacks on U.S. or allied troops in Afghanistan.

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sens.  Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) said they joined together to introduce the legislation in the aftermath of the “Trump administration’s failure” to respond to reports of an effort from Moscow to pay militants in Afghanistan to kill coalition troops there. 

Specifically, the bill would mandate Trump certify if Moscow “offered, ordered, directed, or was otherwise responsible for bounties” for the killing of coalition troops and, if he does, impose sanctions on President Vladimir Putin “or any person acting for or on behalf of him” as well as any Russian government, defense or intelligence official involved in the efforts.

The bill goes beyond sanctions for the bounties, saying Trump must slap penalties on “persons that facilitate illicit and corrupt activities on behalf of President Putin, including oligarchs, political figures, and their family members.” 

The bill would also authorize $50 million per year in rewards for people who provide information on Russian bounties against troops and $30 million each year for the State Department Global Engagement Center’s efforts to counter Russian influence in South and Central Asia.

“As we continue to learn the lengths that President Trump is willing to go to downplay Putin’s aggressions against our nation, we are once again forced to mandate what should be common sense: The U.S. government will always stand up for our service members and against any foreign actor who seeks to harm them,” said Menendez. “Incredible that we have reached this point — but we actually need laws that force the President of the United States to protect American lives and our interests.”

“Congress has an obligation to step in and act. Putin is emboldened by President Trump’s capitulation and is increasing his aggressive behavior which includes putting bounties on American troops and reckless behavior against our forces on land, water and sea. The lives of American service members are at stake — I urge Senators on both sides of the aisle to join us in protecting our service members and sending a strong message to Putin,” added Shaheen.

The bill comes after a series of reports over the summer on a Moscow program offering money to the Taliban for attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan even as the group engaged in peace talks with the U.S.

Subsequent reports found that the bounties led to the deaths of U.S. service members and that top White House officials were aware of intelligence on the program in 2019. The information was reportedly included in at least one of the president’s written briefings in February, though it has been reported that Trump does not always read the full document.

Trump and Robert O’Brien, his national security adviser, have called the reporting a “hoax,” and the president in July confirmed he never pressed Putin on the issue.

“That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Trump said when asked about why the matter wasn’t raised in a phone call.