When visiting recently with Tennesseans across eight counties, I received several questions about the crisis in Ukraine and why it matters to the United States. With so many problems here at home, I understand why many Tennesseans wonder why Russia’s aggression is a threat to our country’s interests, and why the U.S. should get involved in a territory more than 5,700 miles away.
These are valid questions and ones that I have been examining since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military unlawfully invaded Crimea, a territory of its sovereign neighbor – Ukraine.
As ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I have been highly involved in crafting legislation that the president signed into law last week to provide aid to Ukraine and impose costs on the Putin regime. I’m proud of the bill because it makes it clear to our allies and Russia that our country will stand together with the people of Ukraine and work toward a resolution to this crisis.
The U.S. must show strong leadership and defend Ukraine’s independence. If not, and if the U.S. and its allies allow Putin’s actions to go without serious consequences, what will deter him from further aggression? To ignore the Putin regime’s blatant antagonism would be to ignore the important lessons in history and 70 years of U.S. policy in Europe.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has played a central role in helping rebuild a Europe that is whole, free and at peace. These efforts culminated in the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which signaled the end of the Soviet Union. The defeat of communism generated stronger and more prosperous U.S. allies that became open to American business and willing to defend our mutual security in future conflicts. In 1994, the U.S. was involved in an agreement in which Ukraine gave up one of the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in exchange for commitments from the U.S., Great Britain and Russia to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
Putin’s takeover of Crimea is in direct violation of this accord, the consequences of which are far reaching. This event puts other important agreements to stop the spread of nuclear weapons at risk. Additionally, Russia’s forcible seizure of sovereign territory causes bordering nations to question Putin’s next potential target. It was only six years ago when Russia invaded Georgia, providing an ominous prior precedent.
We also have important economic interests at stake. If left unchallenged, Russia’s actions threaten the economic stability of the region, which in turn can affect our trading partners and worldwide markets. Despite possessing just 4.5 percent of the global population, the U.S. generates 22 percent of the world’s economic activity. The largest destination for U.S. goods outside North America is Europe, which is on the doorstep of the Russians. In addition, foreign-owned companies like Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Nissan North America in Smyrna, Bridgestone in Nashville, Hankook Tire in Clarksville, and Electrolux in Memphis provide long-term, transformative investments in our communities that can only occur by the U.S. playing a leading role in maintaining a free, prosperous and peaceful international economic order.
To help address some of these challenges, the bill I coauthored mandates tough sanctions against individuals and entities involved in undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and it authorizes the president to impose sanctions for corruption inside Russia. These measures will serve as a tool to help isolate Russian officials whose support is essential for Putin’s ability to retain power.
The legislation also provides aid to strengthen democracy and enhance security efforts in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, it allows Ukraine to obtain loans to support its economy. A more stable, secure Ukraine will be better able to complete the political and economic steps necessary to set the country on a path to greater independence and prosperity.
By passing this legislation and signing it into law, the United States government is sending a unified message of support to the Ukrainian people and a clear signal to Russia that its actions won’t go unpunished. We also must remain resolute and the Obama administration must demonstrate a willingness to ratchet up the pressure on the Russian economy if Putin continues on his current path.
Timidity can have no place in our foreign policy and would only invite further aggression down the road. The crisis in Ukraine is a defining moment for the defense of freedom, for the sovereignty of nations, and frankly, for the credibility of the United States. The U.S. must assert leadership and work with our allies toward a peaceful solution.