Despite Ukraine Tensions, Russia Still Involved in Syria

A top State Department official said he believes the European country is committed to removing Syria’s chemical weapons.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow on March 5, 2014.
National Journal
March 6, 2014, 2:42 p.m.

Des­pite in­creas­ing ten­sions over Rus­sia’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea, a top State De­part­ment of­fi­cial said that the situ­ation in Ukraine isn’t im­pact­ing a push to des­troy Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al-weapons ar­sen­al.

“I be­lieve Rus­sia re­mains com­mit­ted to the ob­ject here, which is the re­mov­al and de­struc­tion of all of Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al-weapons stock­pile,” Deputy Sec­ret­ary of State Wil­li­am Burns said at a Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee hear­ing Thursday about Syr­ia and Ukraine.

Des­pite be­ing seem­ingly un­re­lated, sen­at­ors fo­cused on a com­mon thread the two scen­ari­os have: Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment.

And Burns ac­know­ledged that the United States has been “frus­trated” about the Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment’s un­will­ing­ness to push harder on Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad’s re­gime on areas in­clud­ing in­creas­ing ac­cess to hu­man­it­ari­an aid.

Des­pite mul­tiple delays by the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment to turn over chem­ic­al ma­ter­i­als, Burns said he be­lieves it is still pos­sible to meet a mi­dyear dead­line to des­troy the coun­try’s chem­ic­al-weapons pro­gram.

“That’s an area where I be­lieve Rus­sia has a self-in­terest in try­ing to en­sure that that hap­pens, it’s not a fa­vor to the United States. It’s something that Rus­sia has com­mit­ted to, and I hope we can ac­com­plish that goal,” Burns said.

The Sen­ate hear­ing was ori­gin­ally sched­uled to fo­cus on Syr­ia’s civil war and wheth­er it is in­creas­ing ter­ror­ist activ­ity in the Middle East, but with in­creas­ing ten­sions between the West and Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, the Ukraine was ad­ded to the agenda.

“Ukraine is the 800-pound gor­illa at the mo­ment and we can’t ig­nore it, nor we can ig­nore that Rus­sia is a com­mon ele­ment in both coun­tries,” Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez said, adding that “Rus­sia’s sup­port for As­sad in Syr­ia and the Rus­si­an in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion of parts of Ukraine make clear that Putin’s game isn’t 21st-cen­tury states­man­ship.”

The House voted over­whelm­ingly on Thursday to al­low the Ukraine to re­ceive $1 bil­lion in loan guar­an­tees from the State De­part­ment. The com­mit­tee is ex­pec­ted to take up an aid bill next week.

Sen. Bob Cork­er, the com­mit­tee’s top Re­pub­lic­an, cri­ti­cized the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent, say­ing that the White House is “think­ing that someone like Putin re­acts to warmth and charm and reach-out, when what he really re­acts to is weak­ness.”

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