Crisis in Ukraine: What role for Congress in shaping US response?

With the White House and Congress mostly in accord on Ukraine, lawmakers are working on loan guarantees and other measures to shore up the shaky and nearly bankrupt government in Kiev.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Ukrainians Maria (r.) and Vanui hold posters against Russia's military intervention in Crimea, in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, March 2, 2014.

Members of Congress are not holding back on their views of the crisis in Ukraine. From potential presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida to the co-chair of the little-known Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, lawmakers are urging a stiff US response to Russia’s takeover of the Crimea region in Ukraine – but no military intervention.

Events are moving quickly in this strategic country the size of France, which is politically and geographically split between Russia in the East and Europe in the West.

In recent days, after months of protests and recent violence, Ukraine’s Russian-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled to Russia and a Western-friendly government took over in Kiev. Russian forces then asserted control over Ukraine’s Crimea, where they have an important naval base. They’re demanding the surrender of two Ukrainian warships there, even as Secretary of State John Kerry is planning a trip to Ukraine Tuesday.

In the following Q&A, the Monitor looks at how Congress can shape America’s response to this cold-war style confrontation with Russia.

Q. What can Congress do?

A. This is not a matter of war for America, so there’s no need for the president to seek congressional consent for troop deployments. However, “it always strengthens the administration to have specific congressional authorization to show national resolve,” says Senate historian Don Ritchie.

On Monday, President Obama suggested that the first order of business for Congress should be to work on an aid package for Ukraine. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate are working on legislation to shore up the shaky and nearly bankrupt new government in Kiev with loan guarantees and other measures, while expecting the International Monetary Fund to do the heavy economic lifting – in exchange for reforms. Senators are also consulting across party lines and with the administration on legislation that would include sanctions against Russia.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs will hold a hearing Thursday with officials from the State and Treasury departments to explore how the US can lead its allies in support of Kiev while exerting financial, economic, and diplomatic pressure on Russia. Senate majority whip Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois also says Congress must urgently pass a resolution condemning Russia.

Are Congress and the White House on the same page?

For the most part, yes. This is one of the few issues where Republicans and Democrats generally agree with the White House. Neither branch of government has the appetite for military intervention. And lawmakers of both parties, like the Obama administration, are considering the same kinds of options: economic support for Kiev, diplomatic isolation for Russia (potentially suspending it from the G-8 group of industrialized nations), and economic steps against Russia in the form of trade and investment penalties, bank-asset freezes, and targeted visa restrictions.

“You’re going to find a House that’s very cooperative with the administration on this,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R) of Illinois on ABC’s “This Week.”  Mr. Kinzinger was elected in the Republican wave that swept Congress in 2010, and is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Relations.

Where do potential differences lie?

In the timing, and in the details. Republicans and Democrats are both talking very tough now, but GOP lawmakers sound more urgent and also more specific about what might be called a “soft military” response.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, for instance, says that “starting right now” the president needs to suspend Russia’s membership in the G-8 and G-20. So far, the White House and US allies have agreed only to suspend planning for their participation in the next G-8 summit, to take place in Sochi, Russia – though shutting Russia out of the G-8 group is clearly on the table, according to Secretary Kerry.

Another idea raised by both Senators Graham and Rubio is accelerating the Republic of Georgia’s entry into NATO (Russian forces still occupy parts of Georgia after the military clash between their two countries in 2008). They and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona also support reviving an anti-ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic – a plan that was reconfigured by the Obama administration during its early attempts to “reset” relations with Russia. Further, some Republicans suggest beefing up military support for NATO nations that feel threatened by Russia, such as Poland, which borders Ukraine.

These moves may be not only problematic for the administration, but for some NATO members. Once a country is a member of the alliance, for instance, it comes under NATO’s protection. Would the US and others really be willing to send forces to defend tiny Georgia? And might reviving the ballistic missile shield not further provoke Russia?

But “pushing the envelope” like this is also the role of Congress, says Neil Brown, a former Republican staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Sometimes, he explains, Congress can suggest things the president can’t – giving a White House room to maneuver while a congressional threat hangs over the head of an adversary, such as with additional sanctions on Iran. Sometimes, of course, people just differ.

Will Ukraine turn into a partisan issue?

So far, Republicans are leaving their criticisms of Mr. Obama and Ukraine mostly in the past – decrying him for weakness with Moscow that they say led Russia to this point. Rubio, a potential presidential candidate, could use this issue to burnish his foreign policy credentials. Graham, who faces a stiff primary race this year, might find it a useful way to sound more conservative than his conservative competition.

But mostly, foreign policy can only be exploited when Americans really care about a particular issue – Israel for instance, or hot wars that involve America. This hasn't reached that level – yet.

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