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Why they fight: Ukrainians still remember past Russian oppression
05:47 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Tim Hutchinson is a former US senator from Arkansas who also served two terms in the US House of Representatives. Bob Kerrey, a former US senator from Nebraska, is the managing director at Allen & Co., an investment bank. Ben Nelson is a former US senator from Nebraska. Wes Clark is a retired US Army general, a former NATO supreme allied commander and a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center. Joe R. Reeder is a former undersecretary of the Army. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.

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Reps. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, and Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, recently introduced legislation that was short on words but potentially monumental in its impact.

The Ukrainian Sovereignty Act of 2022 would ensure Ukrainians, whether they are US citizens or not, can seek monetary damages through the US courts for any losses incurred as a result of the Russian invasion, paid out by assets seized from Russia or Russian oligarchs the US government has sanctioned.

This bill addresses both US ethical principles and economic interests while creating a practical mechanism for Ukrainians to rebuild their lives.

Current US law generally prevents lawsuits against a foreign government for actions that occur outside the United States. The assets of a foreign central bank are also off-limits, even if they are sitting in US banks.

The Dingell-Upton bill would change that, and tens of billions of dollars the Bank of Russia has stored in the US, not to mention the seized assets of other Russians and Russian entities facing sanctions, could be available to help compensate Ukrainian refugees and survivors of the war.

If the bill proposed by Dingell and Upton passes, a Ukrainian family whose home was destroyed by a Russian military bombing assault would be able to sue in the United States. Such litigation could seek replacement of the home and belongings as well as medical costs and classic compensation for injuries.

Ukraine could also file a lawsuit in the United States and use any Russian funds to help rebuild the hospitals, schools and other structures that the Russian military destroyed during this unlawful invasion. American citizens and any businesses they own that suffered losses in Ukraine also could be compensated.

While there is no way to make up for the devastating loss of their homes, neighborhoods and communities, this bill creates an avenue for Ukrainians to hold Russian leader Vladimir Putin accountable and use whatever they are awarded to rebuild their lives. This extraordinary process is warranted by the apparent war crimes Russia has visited upon Ukraine, especially the civilian population of mostly women, children and older adults. (Russia continues to deny responsibility and deny it has committed any war crimes.)

Sens. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, and Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, have also introduced legislation targeting seized Russian assets to establish a Ukrainian Relief Fund to support refugees and reconstruction. A similar bill was introduced by Reps. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, and Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, and was voted out of the Foreign Affairs Committee on April 5. This measure has since been amended reportedly in light of due process concerns. It no longer has the force and effect of law and is now a resolution expressing the “sense of Congress.”

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    It is time to say enough is enough to the injustice, pain and suffering an autocratic leader and his corrupt cadre of billionaire oligarchs are bringing upon millions of innocent people. Yes, at some point, there will be an end to this insanity and horror. But one thing is for certain: Russia will be unwilling or unable to contribute to the rebuilding of this decimated nation it so wantonly destroyed. Now is the time to set in place a process whereby these assets may be put to the cause of righting this terrible wrong.

    As a nation, we are already committed to helping Ukraine through direct aid and economic sanctions, even if doing so might drive up the prices of gas and other products. There is no reason why we shouldn’t force Russia to pitch in and help rebuild a nation it is ruthlessly destroying. The proposed bills in Congress do just that.