Republican and Democratic senators who visited Ukraine cast off their political differences to demand intense diplomatic and economic pressure to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from seizing more than just Crimea. They also all agree on the need to help the very worried interim leaders of Ukraine.
But that’s where the similarities seem to end.
The Ukrainian leaders believe “Russia’s aim wasn’t just Crimea — it’s really Kiev,” Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said. “I think that’s really true. It’s a very unfortunate fact, but it appears Vladimir Putin is engaged in a new Cold War.”
Not all Johnson’s colleagues see a Cold War repeat, however.
“There’s a feeling in Ukraine that Putin is making this up as he goes along, and that sentiment is probably not wrong,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
“The invasion of Crimea was not an act of strength, but one of weakness,” Murphy said. ” … Russia is not what they once were during the days of the Cold War. We have to take this illegal action seriously, but nobody should think they are on a path to their former glory; they’re a nation hemorrhaging in regional reach and economic might.”
The apparent differences in opinion among the eight senators who visited Ukraine on the best way to help solve the crisis — and their divergent analyses of the situation on the ground — highlight the difficulty Congress may face as it grapples with the same task.
The Senate delegation, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., arrived just before Crimea overwhelmingly voted Sunday to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, in a referendum the U.S. and other Western countries denounced as in violation of both international law and Ukraine’s constitution. Russian forces continue to occupy the region.
All the senators want to help, but they disagree on exactly how.
Partisan bickering over expanding the International Monetary Fund’s lending capacity meant the eight senators departed for Ukraine on Thursday without passing an aid package. The U.S. has offered $1 billion in American loan guarantees to the new leadership in Kiev, and a bill is expected to pass Congress soon.
The question of whether to provide military aid could be another divisive issue. The senators relayed Ukrainian leaders’ warnings that its military, and likely the Ukrainian people on their own, would fight back if Russia tried to seize more territory.
The Obama administration has so far rebuffed a request by Kiev’s interim government to provide military aid, including arms and ammunition. McCain, predictably, has insisted Ukraine needs military aid. Johnson agrees: “As a freedom-seeking people, we should support it.”
The U.S. should also send a small military delegation to assess what equipment the Ukrainians need quickly, he said.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is also in favor of sending small arms to Ukraine’s military and local law enforcement, in consultation with NATO allies. “They’re having demonstrations and riots in some of the cities because of Russians who are being bused in; we need to get them equipment that they need to enforce the law.”
But Murphy was skeptical. “There’s nothing the U.S. can provide in the next few days that would provide any kind of resistance against a Russian invasion. The Ukrainian military’s capabilities don’t even allow them to handle the most modern equipment we could send over,” Murphy said. “I think we should recognize the limits of our ability in the short run.”
There are a few things that members of both parties seemed to support — namely, that sanctions issued by the Obama administration and the European Union on Monday are a good first step.
The sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials are considered by far the toughest since the Cold War, but senators said the target list should be expanded. “They’ll feel these sanctions, when they can’t travel the world, go to vacation homes in Cyprus or London, when they can’t invest,” Sen. John Hoeven said, “and have to bring all the money back into Russia in that very limited economy.”
Ultimately, Murphy added, it may be the economic sanctions against Russia’s petrochemical companies and banks that will “cause Putin enough heartache to completely rethink his calculation.”
Several senators worried about how ousted President Viktor Yanukovych “hollowed out” the Ukrainian military and would support helping Ukraine long-term. Only 6,000 troops today are ready for combat, Durbin said. “We need to help them professionalize their military.”
Hoeven wants legislation to allow the U.S. to export its natural gas to NATO countries and Ukraine and deprive Russia of business. “Putin’s economy is not strong. It’s entirely dependent on energy sales.”
The senators were all moved by the visit to the central Maidan square in Kiev. It was there the protests swelled against Yanukovych’s government, and where the government used brutal force to try to suppress the masses. “They were executed right there in the public square. Instead of people fleeing, more people came,” Hoeven said. Now, he said, the square is “a memorial to all these people who were killed in cold blood. Flowers and candles.”