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
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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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