The Obama adminstration is making the same mistakes in Ukraine as it did in Syria according to a top Republican senator.
Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is going to Kiev Wednesday to pledge support for the embattled government. The two-term senator from Tennessee travels to Ukraine as a critic of the U.S. approach to the crisis, which he sees as failing to give Ukraine the equipment it needs and failing to impose sanctions on Russia that would change Putin’s behavior. For Corker, the administration’s approach of talking tough but then not backing it up with action is a repeat of what he has seen in the administration’s policy toward Syria.
“As I prepare to go into Ukraine tonight, it feels a lot like the last trip I made to Syrian refugee camps,” Corker told The Daily Beast in an interview from Moldova, the landlocked former Soviet republic just to the west of Ukraine, where he spent Tuesday meeting with leaders there about the widening regional crisis,
“We talked to the [Ukrainian] opposition [late last year], as we did on Syria, we drew them out, we talked about getting them organized, we talked about how supportive we were, and then we did nothing. We left them hanging,” Corker said. “The West lured them out, the West encouraged them to move West, and yet we’re not doing those things that I think we should be doing to push back against Russia.”
Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev Tuesday with some additional aid and a pledge to stand by the Kiev government as it deals with expanding political unrest across eastern and southern Ukraine, supported by Russian intelligence and special forces, according to the U.S. government.
"You will not walk this road alone. We will walk it with you," Biden told Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Biden called on Russia to "stop supporting men hiding behind masks and unmarked uniforms sowing unrest in eastern Ukraine."
The administration has promised additional sanctions if Russian covert action inside Ukraine continues, but does not intend to impose broad sanctions against entire sectors of the Russian economy unless the Russian army officially invades Eastern Ukraine. Corker wants the administration to impose the sector-based sanctions now.
“We know that they are using black ops to foment problems inside Ukraine, we are stating that publicly, and yet we are not doing anything about it,” he said. “Their economy is very vulnerable right now and we were to take steps to punish them, it could change their behavior, but we’re not doing that.”
For Corker and many others in Congress, Obama’s reluctance to impose broader sanctions barring an invasion of eastern Ukraine by uniformed Russian soldiers only encourages Putin to ramp up his interference inside Ukraine by covert means.
“The administration is sending the signal to Russia, ‘Hey, you can have your way in Eastern Ukraine. Just don’t embarrass us,’” said the Tennessee senator. “Their policy continues to be a day late and a dollar short.”
Meanwhile, tensions are rising in Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria, where 2,500 Russian troops are based. There have been reports that Russia is bolstering its force in Transnistria, which has been de facto independent since 1992, and increasing covert activity in the major Ukrainian city of Odessa, which is only 50 miles away.
“There was very much concern in Moldova about what’s happening in Odessa. That’s being fomented by Russia by non-uniformed people,” Corker said.
Corker's request to visit Transnistria was rejected by the government of the breakaway region, but he said that the Moldovans are feeling increased Russian pressure. The Moldovans are not seeing Russian special forces on their territory according to the Tennessee Republican, but Russia is trying to increase its influence there ahead of upcoming elections. Moldovans are asking for more help to secure their border, in addition to the $10 million Washington has already given them to bolster their efforts.
In Corker's opinion, the administration risks losing the faith of the Ukrainians it supports by not doing enough to push back against Putin
“I’m concerned about the message we as a nation are sending. Members of the executive branch talk tough but then really don’t do anything,” he said. “It’s having a blowback on how we are being viewed and whether we are there to stand beside them in their time of need.”