Lawmakers Stay On Edge Over Putin’s Ambitions

Senate Foreign Relations members say additional action with more muscle may be needed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
April 3, 2014, 12:44 p.m.

Even as Pres­id­ent Obama signed a Ukraine aid pack­age in­to law Thursday that also pun­ishes Rus­sia, law­makers re­mained skep­tic­al that Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin would be de­terred.

“We need to do everything we can to dis­suade Putin from be­ing even more ex­pan­sion­ary,” said Sen. Ron John­son, who did not spe­cify what stronger steps the U.S. should take but said they should have more “re­solve.” “Putin only re­sponds to ac­tion, he doesn’t re­spond to words. There’s a whole host of things we can do to make sure that we change his cal­cu­lus that if he moves fur­ther in­to Ukraine, there’d be a much high­er price to pay across the board.”

John­son, a Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an, was among a num­ber of Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee mem­bers who ex­pressed con­tin­ued un­ease Thursday about Putin’s am­bi­tions in Ukraine and the sur­round­ing re­gion.

Com­mit­tee mem­bers openly de­bated wheth­er ad­di­tion­al ac­tion would be needed after they left a clas­si­fied brief­ing on Rus­sia with of­fi­cials from the de­part­ments of State and De­fense as well as the Of­fice of the Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence.

After Rus­sia’s in­cur­sion in­to Crimea in late Feb­ru­ary, which res­ul­ted in its an­nex­a­tion of the re­gion last month, Con­gress fi­nally sent a Ukraine aid pack­age to the White House on Tues­day that also seeks to pun­ish Rus­sia by co­di­fy­ing sanc­tions against Putin’s al­lies.

The pan­el’s rank­ing mem­ber, Re­pub­lic­an Bob Cork­er of Ten­ness­ee, said that if Putin con­tin­ues on the same course, more ac­tion could be war­ran­ted.

“I think an­oth­er week of troop buildup on the bor­der and noth­ing chan­ging, maybe so,” he said.

Oth­ers ar­gued the key was to keep ratchet­ing up pres­sure on Putin through sanc­tions.

“The soon­er we can con­vince the Europeans to move for­ward on the next set of eco­nom­ic sanc­tions, the tight­er the noose will be around Putin,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Con­necti­c­ut Demo­crat. “Putin thinks he can ne­go­ti­ate his way in­to a fed­er­al sys­tem that will cleave off east­ern Ukraine in re­cog­ni­tion of their oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea. I think we need to move for­ward on eco­nom­ic sanc­tions as quickly as pos­sible to make it clear that there will be a con­tin­ued cost to them if they are not ne­go­ti­at­ing in good faith.”

For his part, com­mit­tee Chair­man Sen. Robert Men­en­dez was tight-lipped about what steps, if any, should be taken next in Con­gress.

“It re­mains to be seen,” the New Jer­sey Demo­crat said. “But we are cer­tainly poised to do more if we have to, if we think it will be a de­terrent to­wards any fur­ther Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion.”

Men­en­dez ad­ded that the Ukraine pack­age Obama signed in­to law Thursday sends an im­port­ant mes­sage to Rus­sia.

“It’s sig­ni­fic­ant be­cause No. 1, not only does it co­di­fy some of the ac­tions that the pres­id­ent took, but it ex­pands upon it,” he said. “And clearly some of the con­sequences of those ac­tions felt by those closest to Putin have been sig­ni­fic­ant. It’s like stand­ing in a circle and all of a sud­den every­one in the circle is get­ting a bomb thrown on them and you get the mes­sage that it’s get­ting close.”

Sep­ar­ately on Thursday, Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber James In­hofe, R-Okla., in­tro­duced a res­ol­u­tion to stop fur­ther Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion and pre­serve Mol­dova’s sov­er­eignty, which de­mands Rus­sia with­draw from the re­gion.

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