By Julian Pecquet - 02/28/14 06:00 AM EST
The U.S.-Russian relationship is going through one of its roughest patches since the fall of the Soviet Union, raising concerns on Capitol Hill about a new Cold War.
Lawmakers on Thursday began to worry openly about a military confrontation with Russia as President Vladimir Putin launched military exercises on the border with Ukraine, and pro-Russian gunmen stormed government buildings in the Crimea.
He said the U.S. should put a military option “on the table” if Moscow attacks.
Some members of Congress on Thursday were preparing to fly to the troubled region in the coming weeks, while others urged the U.S. to provide cash support to teetering U.S. allies in Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, that Russia is courting for influence.
A few hawkish members, such as Kinzinger, urged the White House to flex its military muscles and for Congress to offer its support.
“We need to embolden the president, offer him congressional support to actually stand up to the Russians and push back,” Kinzinger said. “Things like calling on Russia to demilitarize the border with Georgia, putting together aid packages for our allies in the region ... and making it very clear that a Russian military incursion in Ukraine will be met with some very tough force.”
News that a Russian “intelligence” warship docked in Havana on Wednesday, splashed prominently across the conservative Drudge Report website, only helped to further raise concerns on Capitol Hill.
“It's very curious — and worrisome — about Putin's intentions in Cuba, because historically they had always seen Cuba as a strategic location for a lot of intelligence that they were doing,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American and past chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel. “It raises questions about whether Russia is back at it again. It's like a 1950s spy novel, except that unfortunately it's here and now.”
The flare-up in tensions follows a brief thaw during the Olympic Games that only served to temporarily patch the deteriorating relationship since Obama announced a reset with Russia early in his first term. Since then, the two countries have clashed over Russia's support for President Bashar Assad in Syria, its decision to offer asylum to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and its anti-gay legislation.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Russia's aggressive stance was directly related to U.S. defense cuts. Moscow has been accused of being involved in the repression of pro-European protesters and has given sanctuary to deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is wanted in connection with protesters' deaths.
“Putin's not a dummy,” Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said at breakfast with defense writers on Thursday. “He looks at it and says, 'Hey, America's cutting back their defense, I can push here.’ ”
“It's a dangerous world, and we're making it more so by cutting defense,” McKeon said. “We weaken ourselves, and that is how you get into wars. You don't get into wars if you're strong.”
The Kremlin's military maneuvers and reports that Russia is giving out passports to residents of Ukraine's Crimea region has raised concerns of a repeat of the 2008 border war with Georgia. Russian forces remain in disputed parts of the country almost six years later.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Thursday that the situation in Ukraine “brings back memories” of the devastation he witnessed when he visited Georgia during the war.
“I continue to be concerned that we’re going to see a replay of what we saw in Georgia,” he said, “because I think their interests there, candidly, are even more important to Russia than … in Georgia.”
He urged the Obama administration to “show strength” to try to “deter” potential Russian aggression.
The White House has sought to play down the inevitability of U.S.-Russia friction, arguing the events in Ukraine are not a “zero-sum game” that can only benefit one side to the detriment of the other.
“I think I have a little deeper expertise in this matter than perhaps some others,” White House spokesman Jay Carney, a former foreign correspondent who covered Russia for Time magazine, said last week. “I would say that it is profoundly different from the Cold War era.”
Still, Secretary of State John Kerry put the Kremlin on notice Wednesday that “any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge — a grave — mistake.” Russia has said it has no intention of interfering.
Senior Foreign Affairs panel member Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) said he worries that, if Putin “thinks that we don't really care about it, I think that there's more of a chance that he will act.” He said Congress and U.S. diplomats are considering ways to get that message across, including financial help, such as the $1 billion in emergency loan guarantees Kerry promised to Ukraine's new government on Wednesday.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) told The Hill he's organizing a congressional delegation to assure the new Ukrainian government of U.S. support while pressing it to be inclusive with regard to the country's many Russians. He expressed hope Russia could come to see a free and prosperous Ukraine as a boon for the region and itself.
“The sooner there's a presidential election, the more likely we'll have a figure who can perhaps unite the country,” he said. “Many of the Russian-speaking legislators from eastern Ukraine have begun to cooperate with legislators from the west, and hopefully we can build on that.”