Bob Ray Sanders

March 15, 2014

Bob Ray Sanders: Relations with Russia becoming more like days of old — frigid

Congress must stand with President Obama if he decides to impose sanctions.

It’s not exactly the Cold War, but as some of the old folks in my family used to say, it’s getting mighty chilly.

No, there are not any Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba pointed toward the U.S. — even though a Russian spy ship did make a surprise visit to the island nation last month — and no Russian leader has recently proclaimed to the Western world, “We will bury you.”

But Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed his heel on the neck of the Ukrainian people while poking his finger in the eyes of Western leaders, daring them to do something about it.

The United States, Europe and the rest of the international community must do something besides talk in reaction to Russia’s military “invasion” of the pro-Moscow Crimean region and Putin’s support of a hastily called referendum set for Sunday on whether that section of Ukraine should secede.

But the question is, do what?

President Obama, in declaring his support of Ukraine after its people forced former President Viktor Yanukovych to leave the country, has told Putin that Russia’s actions in Crimea are a violation of international law and that a referendum, which could lead to Russia annexing the peninsula, is against the Ukrainian constitution.

Obama warned Putin that the U.S. would not accept the referendum and urged the Russian president to seek another path to end the crisis or Russia would suffer the cost imposed by the international community.

For his part, Putin has called the ousting of Yanukovych a coup and insists that his military only intervened in Crimea to protect ethnic Russians in that part of the country.

Now to the dilemma of what should be done.

Putin has stepped out on a limb, looking like a leaner, meaner version of Nikita Khrushchev from a half-century ago. And this is within days of his country having basked in the international spotlight during its successful hosting of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

He will have to be given the opportunity to somehow save face, but at the same time the U.S. and Europe must be prepared to institute some harsh sanctions against Russia that, in turn, could isolate the country at a time when it has been seeking international acceptance and economic investments.

There was a little hope Friday when Secretary of State John Kerry met in London with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but after a six-hour meeting the two emerged to say the two countries were still at an impasse.

Lavrov, saying there was no “common vision,” indicated that Russia still accepts Crimea’s right to vote on its independence.

Assuming that the vote is held and the referendum passes, Obama must keep his word in holding Russia accountable.

A Senate bill that won key committee approval last week would authorize $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine and give Obama the power to impose economic penalties on Russian officials responsible for the intervention in Crimea or culpable of gross corruption, The Associated Press reported.

This is a time when the Congress must stand with the president. Rather than having partisan detractors trying to find ways to blame him for the situation in Ukraine or engage in their usual name calling, members of both parties should unite in supporting Obama on actions he seeks to put in place.

Although the Ukrainian people see Russia’s intervention as a declaration of war and some leaders there are bracing for just that, there is no way this country can become involved militarily.

But we must be prepared to do anything short of that if Russia continues to reject diplomacy. Economic sanctions would be a good first step.

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