Back From Ukraine, Senators Brace for ‘New Cold War’

Maybe even with each other, as they figure out a way to help beat back Russia.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (left) and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
March 17, 2014, 1:04 p.m.

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.”

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