WASHINGTON — The president sets U.S. foreign policy but, with regard to Ukraine, Congress has an opportunity to push the United States in a more fruitful direction by approving bipartisan legislation from the Senate that would give Kiev $350 million in military aid to help it fend off Moscow’s advances.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who dreams of resurrecting the Soviet empire, scoffs at U.S. and European actions to date, and he won’t be deterred from seizing more of Ukraine and plotting his next moves in the region by somewhat tougher sanctions or more Western pooh-poohing about his growing “isolation.”
That’s important because Putin is not just carving up a former Soviet republic but he’s threatening the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, all of which are now NATO members. More broadly, he’s threatening the very norms of international relations that have mostly ensured global stability in the post-Cold War world.
Only U.S. military aid to Ukraine’s besieged government holds the potential to give Putin any pause. As Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko told Congress recently with regard to U.S. nonmilitary aid, “Blankets and night-vision goggles are important. But one cannot win a war with blankets.”
For the U.S.-led West and its efforts to halt Putin’s advances, 2014 has been a weak year of verbal condemnation, limited sanctions and military posturing. Far from disturbing Putin, the West’s actions to date have only encouraged Moscow’s strongman to push ahead.
Russia annexed Crimea in March after its troops seized control of the peninsula and, in a fraudulent election, Crimeans voted 95.5 percent to join Russia. U.S. and European leaders denounced the action, imposed limited sanctions and conducted military exercises in the area –none of which deterred Putin.
Then, Russia aided pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, sent troops and arms across the border, cut off natural gas supplies on which Ukraine relies heavily and forced concessions from Kiev as part of a cease-fire that separatists have already violated.
President Barack Obama vowed that “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” the United States and Europe ramped up sanctions and Obama visited Estonia to voice U.S. support for the Balkans – but Putin barely noticed.
Regarding the Baltics, a top Russian official recently complained of discrimination against ethnic Russians and the Russian language, laying the groundwork for a Ukraine-like intervention.
In addition, Russia seized an Estonian security official along their shared border and charged him with espionage, captured a Lithuanian fishing vessel in what it said were Russian waters, and asked Lithuania to extradite some 1,500 former Soviet citizens who supposedly hadn’t fulfilled their military service in the Soviet Union.
Weak Western action is emboldening Putin. In mid-September, Russian strategic nuclear bombers flew within 63 miles of Alaska’s coast and 46 miles of Canada’s, forcing U.S. and Canadian jets to intercept them.
That Russia sent its bombers as Poroshenko was meeting with top Canadian and U.S. officials signaled Putin’s disdain for the West. In the same vein, Russia sent nuclear bombers on a practice cruise-missile attack off Canada’s coast earlier in September around the time of NATO’s summit in Wales in response to Russia’s activities in Ukraine.
Such Russian brashness comes as Moscow is upgrading its nuclear arsenal, test-firing new missiles and strengthening its forces and bases in the Arctic.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the $350 million in aid for Ukraine on Sept. 18. Congress should quickly follow suit, and the president should shift course and sign it.
Otherwise, we’ll surely see more brazen Russian attacks both in Ukraine and beyond, forcing Washington to ponder what comes next and how much more it will let Putin chip away at the U.S.-led global order.
A former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, Lawrence J. Haas is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.