Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), co-chairs of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, today led a bipartisan group of 27 senators to call on President-elect Donald Trump to continue America’s tradition of support for the people of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. In a letter, they told Trump:
Almost three years after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and military aggression in eastern Ukraine, daily ceasefire violations along the line of contact make a mockery of the Minsk Agreement and demonstrate that this conflict in the heart of Europe is far from over. Russia has yet to withdraw its heavy weapons and continues its sabotage and subversion efforts. It has not halted its disinformation war against Ukraine and the West, nor stopped its economic and political pressure aimed at undermining the Ukrainian government. According to conservative estimates from the United Nations, approximately 10,000 people have been killed, over 20,000 wounded, and more than two million internally displaced since the conflict began. And, unfortunately, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers still do not have full, unimpeded access to the Ukrainian-Russian border while Russia continues to supply weapons, equipment, and personnel to the separatists.
One does wonder if Trump has been presented with these basic facts, or if, like with Russian hacking, Trump chooses not to believe reality. Dubbing Russia’s actions “a military land-grab in Ukraine that is unprecedented in modern European history,” these senators advise:
These actions in Crimea and other areas of eastern Ukraine dangerously upend well-established diplomatic, legal, and security norms that the United States and its NATO allies painstakingly built over decades — a historically bipartisan global security framework that has greatly served US security and economic interests. We believe it is in our vital national security interest to uphold these norms and values, and prevent America’s commitment to its allies and ideals from being called into question.
In light of Russia’s continued aggression and repeated refusal to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereign right to choose its own destiny, we also renew our call for the United States to increase political, economic, and military support for Ukraine. This includes defensive lethal assistance as part of a broader effort to help Ukrainians better defend themselves, deter future aggression, and implement key structural reforms. Similarly, we believe that Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea should never be accepted, nor should we lift sanctions imposed on Russia for its behavior in eastern Ukraine until key provisions of the Minsk Agreement are met. Accordingly, US leadership on maintaining such transatlantic sanctions should remain a priority.
The letter is revealing on multiple fronts.
First, with President Obama leaving, Democrats are now much more willing to engage in vocal criticism of policies that seem only to have encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. Bipartisanship is all to the good here, and signals a level of seriousness about congressional oversight and funding to the incoming administration. As Trump flounders around looking for a secretary of state, the letter provides ammunition, if you will, to Russia hawks who may need to push back on Russia sycophants such as retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the incoming national security adviser.
Second, while Republicans on the Hill have refused to push back on the domestic agenda or on Trump’s glaring conflicts of interest, foreign policy (be it on setting off a tariff war or cozying up to Putin) seems to be a different matter. Credit goes to Republican lawmakers such as Portman and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) who do not seem willing to trim their sails to stay in Trump’s good graces.
Finally, the language of the letter — its bluntness and clarity — contrasts with the outgoing administration’s effort to deflect and reduce ire toward Russia, which often sounded like it was providing PR help to Russia. The administration, for example, took no significant action when it was determined that a civilian airliner was shot down by Russian-backed forces with a surface-to-air missile delivered from Russia. Because both Putin and Trump eagerly misstate or ignore realities that do not fit their agenda, clarity from Congress is all the more important. If Trump wants to defend a “military land-grab in Ukraine,” let him; but let’s not let him get away with ignoring or excusing Russia’s violation of a neighbor’s sovereignty.
As we have said, autocratic leaders must obscure the truth and make facts fungible so as to escape scrutiny for their actions. If Congress can prevent Putin and his admirer Trump from such obfuscation, it would provide a great service to Western democracies.