Senate Republicans vented their frustration over the deteriorating situation in Ukraine on Tuesday, as a panel of Obama Administration witnesses struggled to lay out how the U.S. could block Russian President Vladimir Putin from enforcing his will in the embattled country. While political theater is nothing new in Capitol Hill hearings, Tuesday’s session on whether the U.S. should broaden military aid to Ukraine and step up sanctions against Russia saw lawmakers slap their desk, cut off witnesses and let emotions fly.
Republicans focused their anger on why President Barack Obama hasn't taken a stronger stance against Putin, as he has repeatedly threatened. Sen. Bob Corker, the Ranking Republican on the committee who introduced a new bill last week expanding sanctions and military aid, was the first of his party to speak and ready for a fight. “Are you kidding me?” Corker asked one witness, Assistant Treasury Secretary Daniel L. Glaser, when Glaser initially declined to comment on how pro-Russian separatists are being funded. “Isn’t this what you do?”
“I had hoped better as a witness when I strongly supported nomination for your present position,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland at the end of his questioning.
“I’m not hearing discussed here today what is going to change Putin’s calculus,” charged Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.). “The economic approach is going to fail. When the economic approach fails, then what do we do? Are we ever going to consider providing even small arms?”
The hearing confirmed the Administration’s reticence in aiding Ukrainian forces with military aid. “Senator I think you know from our private conversations, I’m not persuaded personally that [Putin] can be deterred in the ambition that he has,” Nuland told Johnson. “I think there is a question about whether in the short run—we’re talking about the 19 days between now and the election—even with all the will in the world, one could pour enough in there to tip the balance vis-à-vis the mighty Russian military if he chooses to use it. So again we need to make it clear what the costs are going to be.”
As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas put it: "Frankly, it's not the military balance that is going to change the calculus for President Putin. He will know that it will be bloody if he chooses to intervene militarily in Ukraine… and it will be a disaster tactically and certainly strategically. So I think that adding more lethal military equipment into the equation, into the balance isn't going to change things."
Some Democrats fought back at their colleagues on ideological and fiscal grounds. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) reminded Republicans of the cost of aid as Congress debates cuts to military compensation. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that those who want a “much more robust response” risk living by an “extinct principle” in which Russia is the United States' chief adversary. “We should respond, we should be robust in that response, but we shouldn’t be expected to care about this as much as the Russians do.”
In his opening statement, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) attacked Corker’s new bill, which doesn’t have a Democratic co-sponsor, saying the effort drew “partisan lines around this issue.”
But despite the attacks on each other, many Democrats and Republicans united to press the Administration to figure out when it would implement stricter sanctions on Russian banking and energy sectors. Officials it the Administration would do so if looming elections in Ukraine don't proceed as planned, and if the Russians support eastern Ukrainian cities that vote in referendums for autonomy. Menendez suggested the Administration impose some consequence “up front” to prevent Russia from further destabilizing the country before its presidential elections May 25, an idea on which many Republicans agree.
"If we don’t use this calibration on sanctions in a way to prevent further incursion into Ukraine we will find ourselves using those sanctions as an aftermath as we did in Crimea," Menendez said. "And in my mind, that is an aftermath that I don’t want to envision."