A Ukrainian policeman stands guard next to a tank Friday at a newly erected checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainain city of Slavyansk. The United States should step up its efforts to assist Ukraine's military in its standoff with Russia by sending body armor and fuel to Kiev's forces, says Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin. (Genya Savilov / AFP)
WASHINGTON — The United States should step up its efforts to assist Ukraine’s military in its standoff with Russia by sending body armor and fuel to Kiev’s forces, says a key US Senate Democrat.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., for years a close White House ally on national security and foreign policy matters, said Friday “there are a number of steps that we can take to support them in their struggle.”
Levin is on the second and final day of a visit to Ukraine, where he has met with senior civilian and military leaders.
At a Friday press conference in Ukraine, Levin bluntly endorsed sending “lethal” weapons.
“Certain types of weapons are appropriate, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “If they’re needed, I think we ought to provide them.”
Levin said in a statement that Ukrainians face “unrelenting pressure and threats from the Russian armed forces and the people they have brought in to support them.” Moscow denies such claims, which US officials and analysts are standing by, often using photographic evidence.
The Obama administration has sent and pledged to send millions of dollars in non-lethal aid to Ukrainian forces, including Meals Ready to Eat, explosive ordnance disposal gear, radios, engineering equipment, communications systems, vehicles and individual tactical gear. Levin wants the White House to go further.
“Our support for the Ukrainian people must also be resolute. There are a number of steps that we can take to support them in their struggle,” Levin said. “First, we must expedite the aid that we have already promised them, to make sure that it arrives promptly. Second, we should provide additional support, including body armor and fuel, that the Ukrainians need to protect themselves.”
On Tuesday, the White House announced a new $50 million aid package to Ukraine, which will include $8 million for non-lethal equipment. The Obama administration, so far, has resisted sending offensive weapons to Kiev out of fears of provoking Russia and starting a shooting war in Eastern Europe.
Levin did not go quite as far as congressional Republicans such as Sen. John McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Forces and Foreign Relations committees. On Tuesday, McCain hit the airwaves to criticize President Barack Obama’s handling of the crisis.
McCain told MSNBC “there are a broad range of options that we can do” to help Ukraine in its standoff with Russia. Among the actions McCain would like the Obama administration to take is to send Ukrainian forces “weapons to defend themselves.”
One thing Levin, McCain and Obama seem to agree on is the need to slap new sanctions on Moscow. Speaking from Japan, Obama this week said new sanctions are “teed up” and nearly ready to be implemented unless Russian President Vladimir Putin stands down.
It remains unclear, however, just how stringent the new sanctions will be. The White House has resisted calls to sanction Moscow’s major banks, which experts say would hit the Russian economy hard.
Notably, Levin called for just those kinds of actions.
“We should make more robust use of the powers established in Executive Order 13661, which authorizes sanctions against the Russian financial, energy, metals, mining, engineering and defense sectors,” Levin said, “to ensure that Putin pays a price for his illegal actions against Ukraine, and his efforts to undermine democratic processes in this country.
“Finally, we should use this authority to sanction Russian banks in addition to the one that we have already sanctioned, and to take on Russia’s manipulation of energy prices and supplies, which it uses to coerce not only Ukraine, but also many of its neighbors,” he said. “To be effective, these actions must be taken in close coordination with our friends and allies in Europe, many of whom are directly affected by Russia’s abuses and threatened by its actions.”
That could prove tricky. Even Washington’s closest European allies are tightly economically intertwined with Moscow’s economy, meaning any stiff sanctions will have repercussions across the continent.
But one former Russian official came to Washington this week with a different message.
Mikhail Kasyanov, who was Putin’s prime minister from 2000-2004 and now co-chairs the opposition Republican Party of Russia-People’s Freedom Party, told an Atlantic Council audience on Wednesday that the US and West should instead enact sanctions to cause a “weakening of cohesion of [Putin’s] ruling group by individual sanctions … against those people who wanted to destroy European security.”
Still, Kasyanov agrees with the general call for tougher sanctions, saying a failure to put new ones in place would only cause Putin to take bolder steps, even invading other former Soviet-era republics, like Moldova.
Robert Kahn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a Thursday op-ed, that “mild economic sanctions, coupled with the threat of more to come, are imposing an economic price on Russia.”
“But it’s not enough to change Russian policy and prevent the continued destabilization of Ukraine,” Kahn wrote. “The next round of sanctions, which could come in the next few days, presents the opportunity for a reassessment. It’s time for a change of course.”
Like Levin, Kahn favors targeting Russia’s banking system.
“The US should move forward with sectoral sanctions focused on cutting Russian banks and corporations from global financial markets,” Kahn wrote. “Because of Russia’s ties to global financial markets — integrated, highly leveraged and opaque — financial sanctions can cause a sharp, rapid de-leveraging that would result in significant economic distress for Russia.
Kahn said Washington can inflict economic pain on Moscow even if its European allies are hesitant to cause themselves some harm to drive home a message to Putin.
“US financial sanctions can be effective even without Europe in full lockstep given the dominant position of US banks and participation in the payments systems,” Kahn wrote. “Virtually all complex transactions will involve a US financial counterparty at some point in the chain of transactions, and blocking one link in the chain can kill the transaction. It would be sufficient for Europe to support the sanctions informally ... and commit not to actively ‘fill in’ as US financial institutions step back.”