Sen. Mitch McConnell has urged the Obama administration to send weapons to Ukraine. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The US Senate’s top Republican on Thursday said America should send weapons to the Ukrainian military as that country teeters on the brink of war with Russia.
Russian forces continue to occupy Crimea in southern Ukraine, which Russia claims to have annexed. And pro-Russian forces and activists are stirring unrest in eastern Ukraine, which also is home to a large ethnic Russian population.
US officials and analysts say Moscow is behind the activity in eastern Ukraine with the aim of creating a scenario under which its forces would be sent to “protect” ethnic Russians. Moscow denies those charges.
The Obama administration has slapped economic sanctions on some individuals said to be capable of influencing Russian President Vladimir Putin. But European leaders have been reluctant to go further, and because Europe’s economy is more intertwined with Moscow’s, experts say the European Union’s help is essential to persuading Putin to stand down.
US officials say their options are limited, and so far have declined to send lethal weapons to Ukraine’s military out of fears of stoking an all-out war.
But Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says that should change — even amid reports of a deal between US, Ukrainian and Russian leaders to begin de-escalating the situation.
“Here is what I would do: I would be sending arms to the Ukrainian Army,” McConnell said Thursday during an interview with a Mt. Sterling, Ky., radio station. “I would encourage the European Union to expand and take in Ukraine … I would provide serious assistance to the Ukrainians so that they could defend themselves.”
McConnell wouldn’t stop there. He echoed other GOP lawmakers in saying Russia’s invasion of Crimea and alleged actions in eastern Ukraine show President Barack Obama’s decision to reverse his predecessor’s missile defense plans in Europe was a mistake.
“I would renew the discussions that the president just dropped, the idea of missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland at the beginning of his term as a sort of gesture to the Russians,” McConnell said.
“I would re-engage with the Poles and the Czechs and see if we can’t get missile defense back in those countries. All of those steps would indicate without sending in a single American soldier that the US is serious in standing up to this kind of new form of Russian aggression.”
McConnell’s arms-to-Ukraine plan and call to erect the missile shield in Europe would, if enacted, be a boon for the American defense sector, which says it has been damaged by across-the-board budget cuts.
McConnell, a leading congressional critic of Obama who is locked in a tough re-election fight, blamed the US commander in chief for enabling Russia’s aggression.
“You are hard pressed to name a single place in the world where we are in better shape now than we were when he came to office,” McConnell said. “When you think of Syria, you think of the endless discussions with Iran. And so you got Vladimir Putin sitting there looking at that, a guy who believes that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the single biggest disaster, geopolitical disaster, of the previous century, who yearns to restore the empire, and he looks at American leadership and concludes that they won’t do anything.”
Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was a senior US national security official under President George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, wrote Wednesday that “Putin can be expected to continue to interfere in Ukraine for as long as he can — and so long as it serves his aim of strengthening his grip on power at home.
That means, Haass said, “Western policy should seek to frustrate this strategy.”
He says the US and its Western allies have options, but he did not call for American arms shipments to Kiev’s military.
Those options include strengthening Ukraine politically and economically, Haass contends. Washington and its partners also should implement new, tougher sanctions on Moscow that “target Russian financial institutions and limit what may be exported to Russia, and the US and EU should communicate their agreement on such sanctions to Putin, so that he understands the full price he will pay for destabilizing Ukraine.”
Haass also wrote that Putin’s actions should be a “wake-up call for NATO.”
“People and governments need to rid themselves of the comforting illusion that countries’ use of military force to acquire territory is an anachronism,” he wrote. “European defense spending and capacity needs to increase, as does America’s presence in select NATO countries, something that can be achieved even as the US increases its presence in Asia.” ■