An armed pro-Russia militant stands at the site of the crash of a Malaysian airliner in rebel-held east Ukraine. (Dominique Faget/ / AFP)
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WASHINGTON — It’s suddenly 1980-something again on Capitol Hill as a Cold War aura fills the halls of Congress.
As tensions heat up between Moscow and Washington, the rhetoric on Capitol Hill suggests the once-settled Cold War has been rekindled. And the anti-Moscow mood no doubt will intensify if reports Wednesday morning that Russian-backed separatists shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets are confirmed,
The White House continues to press Russian President Vladimir Putin to cut off support for Ukrainian separatists the US and its allies say shot down a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet last week. Russia has, so far, shown no signs of doing so, and America’s European allies, so far, have done little to stand up to Putin’s aggression.
As the Obama administration seeks defense cuts for what it sees as a changing 21st century threat picture, the ultimate conventional threat — the Russian military — has shot back to the top of many US lawmakers’ priorities list.
Suddenly, Moscow once again is American Enemy No. 1.
Members of both political parties are flatly accusing Moscow of having a hand in the takedown of Malaysia Airlines flight 17.
“I think Putin has really thrown down the gauntlet here,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told CongressWatch on Tuesday.
“I am confident the investigation will conclude that an SA-11 surface-to-air missile shot from territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists brought down the plane,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said Tuesday. “Vladimir Putin should be held accountable regardless of whether it was a Russian soldier or a Russian-sponsored separatist who launched this missile.
“Putin should immediately withdraw any support he is providing to the separatists and his forces from Ukraine,” Chambliss said. “If that does not happen, the United States should consider giving stronger military assistance to the Ukrainian government.”
Levin said US officials “have to keep looking for things to do, and hopefully Europe is going to be very active.
“I think we have to consider more of their requests,” Levin said when asked if the White House should provide Kiev’s forces with lethal combat arms. “I thought we should have been more aggressive in answering those requests before [the airliner shootdown].”
So far, the Obama administration has sent or approved shipments of things like night-vision goggles, unarmed vehicles, Meals Ready to Eat, radios, and other non-lethal aid.
The White House fears escalating the conflict into a full-on war if it sends offensive weapons, experts say.
But Ukrainian officials want more.
In an April 30 letter, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, wrote this to US President Barack Obama: “It has come to my attention that the Armed Forces of Ukraine have recently provided your administration with an urgent needs list containing requests for both lethal and nonlethal items.”
“Our presumption ought to be that we would provide them with whatever they are asking for,” Levin said.
The man who would take over SASC if Republicans win control of the Senate in November, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was as Cold War as Levin on Tuesday.
“More aid, weapons to the Ukrainians,” McCain told CongressWatch. “And, then, sector sanctions.
“If the Europeans won’t go along,” a visibly agitated McCain said, retreating to an elevator while engaging reporters, “I’m not surprised.”
In another echo of a previous era, US lawmakers are increasingly frustrated that America’s allies in Europe are doing too little to combat Moscow’s renewed aggression.
“If these events can’t push Europe, I don’t know of any events that would push Europe,” Levin said. “These events are so compelling that they, I hope, will be the action-forcing mechanism that will force Europe to be supportive of much-tougher action.”
McCain’s usage of “sector sanctions” was far from the first utterance of that term on Tuesday.
Earlier, House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., dropped in on a cable news program to push European officials to embrace economic sanctions on Russia that experts say would deliver a more direct hit than any the US could unilaterally implement.
Royce said he wants the Obama administration to use the situation to “take the lead” on crafting with European allies “sector sanctions on Russia.”
The Cold War-like feeling on the Hill led House Appropriations Defense subcommittee member Rep. James Moran, D-Va., on Monday to ask during a television interview: “Where is Europe on this?”
But it’s not merely lawmakers’ words. Their deeds also feed into a feeling that Russia is America’s once-and-again biggest enemy.
In each of the four 2015 military policy and spending bills Republicans and Democrats joined together to keep alive a slew of aging weapon systems the Obama administration sought to retire.
Part of their justification was a collective argument that the world is simply too volatile right now to remove any major system from the American arsenal.
“The arrogant actions of President Putin and Russia in [Ukraine] is a direct result of President Obama’s disarming of America since the beginning of his administration. … President Obama’s attempt to seek peace through apologetic diplomacy while defunding and dismantling our military has failed,” SASC Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in the days following Russia’s March invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region. “Our enemies don’t fear us and our allies no longer respect us.” ■