An unidentified armed individual in an armored vehicle blocks the base of the Ukrainian border guard service in Sevastopol. (Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — Remember Feb. 28, 2014. It’s the date Russian troops seized a large chunk of Ukraine. It’s also the day the biggest congressional proponents of US military force turned into big fans of soft power.
Hawks clamored for President Barack Obama to unleash what they so-often call the world’s most powerful military — ever — to push then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from power. They demanded he send US military aircraft and Tomahawk missiles to take out Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad’s chemical weapons and help boost rebels there. And they want him to reverse defense budget cuts for what they often describe as a nearly inevitable war with China.
But amid powerful images of Russian military helicopters flying into Ukraine’s Crimea district and Russian troops with heavy machine guns occupying its soil, there’s something new in many US hawks’ rhetoric: restraint.
One of Capitol Hill’s top proponents of using US military troops all over the world, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has no visions of a US-Russia conflict.
“Obviously, we’re not going to be sending troops anywhere [where there is] armed conflict,” McCain said Friday on CNN.
Obama on Friday issued what hawks called an insufficient warning with scant details to Russian President Vladimir Putin: “There will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
The typically hawkish McCain wants Obama to specify just how far he is willing to go.
“And when the president said that he told Putin there would be costs, I hope he was specific in some of those costs, because there are a number of costs,” McCain said.
“One of them would be a Magnitsky Act expanded, holding those who are responsible for the actions that are taking place,” he said, referring to a US law restricting certain individuals from coming to the United States
“Another would be economic sanctions that would be far-reaching,” McCain said.
The closest McCain and other hawks have come to recommending military actions are calls to, as he put it, “restart our missile defense capabilities in the Czech Republic that we canceled.”
Hawks also want Obama to push anew the granting of NATO membership for another former Soviet bloc state, Georgia.
Another US hawk, potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, sounded Sunday more like a soft-power proponent.
“I think if you’re asking me whether the US should be taking military strikes against Russian troops in Ukraine or in Crimea, I would argue to you that I don’t think anyone is advocating for that. I am saying, however, that our NATO alliance needs to be reinvigorated, is an important alliance,” the Florida senator said on NBC.
“If you look at countries that neighbor Ukraine now, for example, Poland and others who had part of that alliance, I think we need to be providing them assurances of the importance of this alliance,” Rubio said.
Alliance-building is a key aspect of soft power. So, too, is using non-military tools to promote good governance.
“Beyond that, I would say that it’s part of strengthening and stabilizing the government in Kiev now so they can transition to stability down the road, as well, I think part of that should be strengthening their defense capabilities,” Rubio said. “I think this threat is a long-term one that they’re facing.”
And House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., went nowhere near a call for US military action in a Saturday statement.
“Our response should demonstrate the US stands by its friends against bullies,” McKeon said. “We should do everything practical to help Ukraine turn back these invaders.”
The White House appeared to be, for once, on the same page with these typically hawkish members. On Sunday evening, it announced the first of what analysts expect will be a series of economic and diplomatic actions aimed at convincing Putin to withdraw his forces.
“We note that Russia’s actions in Ukraine also contravene the principles and values on which the G-7 and the G-8 operate,” the leaders of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the presidents of the European Council and European Commission said in a joint statement.
“As such, we have decided for the time being to suspend our participation in activities associated with the preparation of the scheduled G-8 Summit in Sochi in June, until the environment comes back where the G-8 is able to have meaningful discussion,” the leaders said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., came the closest to calling for US military action to repel Russia’s advance. He said in a Monday statement that blame for the invasion rests with Obama’s “disarming of America” over the last half-decade, which Inhofe contends “limits our options in Ukraine today.”
“The arrogant actions of President Putin and Russia in recent days is a direct result of President Obama’s disarming of America since the beginning of his administration. Five years ago, I went to Afghanistan to respond to President Obama’s first budget knowing he was going to disarm America,” Inhofe said. “In that first budget, he canceled our only fifth generation fighter, the F-22; he canceled our C-17; and he canceled our FCS [Future Combat Systems]. That was just the first year. Since then he has taken $487 billion out of our national security.
“Throughout this administration, I have also warned that if the United States does not maintain a ready and capable military, we would surrender our global influence and leave a vacuum that will be filled by Russia,” Inhofe said. “I warned this day was coming, and it is here. President Obama’s attempt to seek peace through apologetic diplomacy while defunding and dismantling our military has failed. Today our enemies don’t fear us and our allies no longer respect us.”
Inhofe was the lone hawk to use an official statement on the Ukraine situation to pan Obama’s coming 2015 defense budget request.
“It’s time for President Obama to come forward and either fully fund our military,” Inhofe said, “or reduce expectations for the United States’ leadership in the world.”
The full defense budget should be unveiled Tuesday, giving congressional GOP hawks a fresh opportunity to link defense budget cuts to Russia’s aggression. ■