A top Republican senator is worried that Russia will use the political upheaval in Ukraine as an excuse to invade the former Soviet republic and that the Obama administration has no plan to counter that threat.
Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he is concerned that Russia will invade Ukraine, just as it started a war with Georgia when it sent troops to back rebels in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008.
“We’re going to see a replay of what we saw in Georgia because I think [Russia’s] interests [in Ukraine] … are even more important to Russia than was the case certainly in Georgia,” Mr. Corker told reporters at a breakfast meeting hosted by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington on Thursday.
“I am concerned about what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is going to do. It is very evident that this is a tremendous threat to him,” Mr. Corker said referring to the crisis in Ukraine.
The senator from Tennessee then criticized President Obama’s handling of the crisis.
“Right now it appears that the president really doesn’t have a plan,” he said. “Not to be pejorative, but as with so many other foreign policy crises, it seems that we are catching up and dealing with events ad hoc as they move on.”
Ukraine, like other post-Soviet republics, is caught in a tug of war between the West and Russia.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry played down this Cold War-type scenario saying the situation in Ukraine “is not a zero-sum game.”
“We’re hoping that Russia will not see this as sort of a continuation of the Cold War,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview with MSNBC. “We don’t see it that way. We do not believe this should be an East-West, Russia-United States — this is not Rocky IV, believe me. We don’t see it that way.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, announced surprise military exercises for Russian troops, including some based close to Ukraine.
In Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union in favor of a $15 billion bailout from Russia sparked massive protests that led to his ouster from the presidency over the weekend.
“For people inside Russia to see what these citizens are doing is a threat to [Mr. Putin],” Mr. Corker said. “If Ukraine moves to the West … obviously it is going to shape Russia’s future in a very big way because no doubt the country will migrate that way.”
Mr. Corker was the first U.S. official to travel to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi during the war with Russia in 2008.
“What you see happening right now in Ukraine brings back those memories,” he said.
The senator cited reports that Russia is printing passports to send to Russian-leaning Ukrainian citizens.
“That is exactly what they did in Georgia,” he said. “They sent passports in to many of the Russian-oriented people there and over time claimed that they needed to come into the country to protect people who had an affiliation with Russia.”
Mr. Corker was also critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the nearly three-year-old war in Syria.
“I could not be more disappointed on our lack of any kind of coherent policy on Syria,” he said. “Whether [Syrians] are getting killed with chemical weapons or barrel bombs, they are still getting killed.”
Mr. Corker said it is far more difficult for the U.S. to tip the balance on the ground away from Syrian President Bashar Assad and that a diplomatic solution also appears out of reach.
“There is no way I see Assad coming to Geneva when he thinks he is winning to negotiate himself out of office,” he said
“The fact is that this is now a regional conflict where every single one of our intelligence officials tells you that this is now becoming a security interest to the United States, this is a place where jihadists are concentrating, this is a place that over time is going to create the same kind of risks to our country that other places like Afghanistan have done in the past,” he added.