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.”