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2014 Midterms: Regardless of Party, the Incoming Congress Needs to Support Ukraine

Editor’s Note: As part of the 2014 Midterm Elections Series, experts across Brookings will weigh in on issues that are central to this year’s campaigns, how the candidates are engaging those topics, and what will shape policy for the next two years. In this post, Strobe Talbott looks at how the election results might influence the future of Obama’s Russia policy.

November 4 will be the first Election Day in a quarter of a century when Americans have reason to be seriously worried about Russia as a major threat to international security and as a daunting challenge to U.S. leadership.

Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, followed by his invasion of eastern Ukraine, is not just a case of Russia’s bullying of another former Soviet republic; it’s a threat to peace in Europe, with the potential of sparking a confrontation with NATO and therefore with the United States.

In addition to trying to bring Ukraine fully and permanently into a Russian sphere of influence—or, more accurately, a sphere of domination—Putin is using Russian covert operatives (“little green men”) and other forms of subterfuge and intimidation to probe the vulnerability of Latvia and Estonia. Both are NATO members, hence covered by the alliance’s obligation to come to their defenses. 

There is also global dimension to Putinism, an ideology that justifies authoritarianism within Russia’s borders and expansionism abroad to “protect” ethnic kinsmen, regardless of their nationality. The perception that Russia has the upper hand in Ukraine has stoked the forces of aggressive nationalism elsewhere, notably in Chinese assertiveness along its borders and in various maritime disputes.

While all this does not mean a return to the Cold War, it provides a further incentive for a robust, coherent, effective U.S. foreign policy, backed by bipartisanship on Capitol Hill and a consensus of the citizenry. The last two years have not been propitious in either respect. President Obama was pummeled in his first term for his domestic policies, notably healthcare, but politics tended to stop at the water’s edge. In his second term, however, he has come under withering criticism and opposition in his capacity as commander- and diplomat-in-chief.

Moreover, the polarization of U.S. politics and the near-paralysis of the Congress have, throughout Obama’s presidency, made it difficult to undergird executive action with supporting legislation. A case in point: an imperative for a successful Russia/Ukraine policy is immediate, large-scale economic assistance to the Kyiv government, especially as it heads into a season when temperatures drop and energy needs rise.

When Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko addressed a joint session of Congress in September, his plea for U.S. economic assistance was answered with a pledge of a paltry $53 million in new aid, most of it in the form of non-lethal security assistance. Including those funds, the United States has provided about $300 million to Ukraine this year (plus a $1 billion loan guarantee). But Ukraine may well need billions of dollars in economic assistance to get through the coming months.

Since the next Congress is likely to reflect the anti-Washington, anti-federal government mood of the electorate, it may well be even harder to get Congress to approve sufficient funds to help Ukraine avoid an economic and political catastrophe.

Another looming obstacle is the isolationist tinge to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, which polls suggest will do well on November 4. That could translate into legislative opposition to beefing up NATO for a return to containment of a Russia that is breaking bad.

That said, there is one respect in which a strong GOP showing in the Senate next month might help: it could elevate to leadership positions senior senators, such as John McCain and Mitch McConnell, who are likely to support forward-leaning American engagement. Part of their task, shared with their Democratic colleagues, will be to ensure the strategic multitasking at a time when the Russians are hunkering down, the Ukraine outrage is fading from the front pages, and other crises such as ISIS and Ebola are dominating the news.

Russia is counting on General Winter as a quiet but brutal ally in its campaign against a divided, destabilized and war-torn neighbor, turning eastern Ukraine into a new “frozen conflict” in a very literal sense. It is essential that both houses of the Congress close ranks on the proposition that the West, led by the United States, embraces a sustainable policy to support Kyiv, maintain sanctions until Russia becomes part of the solution, rather than the problem, and, in the long game, demonstrate that Putinism and its namesake are losers.

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