Sunday’s referendum in Crimea and provocative Russian troop maneuvers have raised the Ukraine crisis to new heights.
Congress has expressed strong support for Ukraine and condemned Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Unfortunately, some on Capitol Hill are pushing ideas that would do little to punish Moscow while undercutting U.S. and NATO security interests. Congress needs to be smart in how it seeks to help Ukraine and punish Russia.
A whirlwind has engulfed Ukraine since former President Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev on February 21 and the Russian military occupied Crimea one week later. In response, Democrats and Republicans have backed Ukraine, called for Moscow’s international isolation, and supported steps to assure NATO allies in Central Europe.
Congress is now considering legislation to broaden sanctions against individual Russians. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) led a delegation to Kiev to underscore U.S. support.
These are useful measures. Other ideas circulating on the Hill, however, make less sense.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio) have called for reinstating the Bush administration plan to put 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland with a supporting radar in the Czech Republic. The Obama administration replaced that with its own plan: a missile defense radar now operating in Turkey, and SM-3 missile interceptors will be deployed in Romania in 2015 and Poland in 2018.
Reviving the Bush proposal might make Russians a bit less happy. But they have already made clear their anger over the Obama missile defense program. Moreover, returning to the Bush plan would prove problematic. The Czechs have said they would not accept the radar. The 10 missile interceptors proposed for Poland are based on an interceptor that has not had a successful flight-test in six years.
Other Republicans suggest penalizing the Russians by withdrawing from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces. The U.S. military says the treaty is in America’s national interest. Does it make sense to withdraw and perhaps fall into a nuclear arms race, which could take scarce defense dollars away from conventional forces?
Washington’s military reaction to the crisis so far has been to deploy conventional military power — F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft and a guided missile destroyer — to Central Europe. U.S. strategic nuclear forces, on the other hand, appear to operate at normal readiness levels.
McCain has suggested accelerating the entry of Moldova and Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in retaliation for Russia’s action against Ukraine. Moldova, however, has not requested NATO membership.
Georgia has, and that was a factor behind its brief — and losing — war with Russia in 2008. Russian troops today sit in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, territories that all but five countries still recognize as Georgian territory. Offering Georgia membership would bring NATO into a ready-to-go conflict with Russia — which is why many Alliance members oppose the idea. Moscow might also respond to a serious membership push with another attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin could calculate that, as in 2008, NATO would not go to war for Georgia.
NATO should deepen its cooperation, including military cooperation, with Georgia and Moldova. (If that is Moldova’s desire.) But it should do so in a deliberate manner. The Alliance should avoid gestures that could trigger a new Caucasus conflict that NATO would not fight. That would hardly help Ukraine.
Congress should instead pursue measures that make Russia pay a real price for its aggression against Ukraine, such as financial penalties. Just the threat of Western financial sanctions has begun to wreak havoc on the Russian stock market and pushed the ruble to new lows. It is time to consider assistance to the Ukrainian military. But let’s stay smart.
The best revenge against Moscow is to help the Ukrainian state succeed. That is, to put Ukraine on a firm path to a growing economy with stable democratic institutions.
Congress could make its most valuable contribution to this goal now, with legislation authorizing the administration’s request for $1 billion in credits for Ukraine. The country is desperately short of cash after Yanukovich’s team spent four years looting government coffers.
An International Monetary Fund mission has recently visited Kiev to discuss a loan program. The Ukrainians are reportedly ready to adopt tough reforms to put their economic house in order.
A Ukrainian commitment to reform bodes well. But finalizing the IMF program will likely require time. Ukraine has bills coming due now. The $1 billion credit guarantee would allow Kiev to cover some debts and help bridge the period to when it can receive a more substantial IMF loan.
Unfortunately, Congress got bogged down over the particulars of the credit legislation and left for recess on March 12 without passing it. When Congress returns, it needs to fix that immediately and extend Ukraine some serious help.