WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Wednesday slammed President Barack Obama's response to Russian aggression as timid and insufficient, and offered an alternative that would impose sanctions on banking and energy sectors and provide weapons to Ukraine.
In an election-year broadside against administration policy, eight Republicans led by GOP Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled a package of penalties on Russians, assistance for NATO and exportation of U.S. natural gas. The senators said they hoped to secure Democratic support, and at a minimum, force the White House to develop a cohesive strategy rather than its ad hoc response.
"Without being overly partisan," McConnell, who faces re-election this year, said of the administration, "I'm deeply disappointed with the tepid response to Russian aggression."
The U.S. and the European Union imposed new sanctions against government officials in Moscow and some businesses this week, the latest round of penalties in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the increasing unrest in eastern Ukraine.
In the latest development, Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said the country's police and security forces are helpless to quell unrest in two eastern regions bordering Russia, and in some cases are cooperating with pro-Russian gunmen who have seized government buildings and taken hostages.
Russia has been emboldened, placing tens of thousands of troops near the border with Ukraine and increasing fears in Ukraine of an invasion.
At a Capitol Hill news conference, McConnell, Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and a half dozen other Republicans assailed the administration's actions and cast them as ineffective as the U.S. response to Syria and Libya.
"Insufficient, tepid, too timid," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
"The president has an uncanny ability of underestimating every crisis and being late," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
A day earlier, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew defended the administration and EU sanctions, saying there had been "quite a substantial deterioration in the Russian economy."
The legislation would accelerate work on a missile defense system in Europe and provide missile defense support to NATO allies, impose penalties on four Russian banks, energy monopolies such as Gazprom and the Russian arms dealer, Rosoboronexport. It would provide $100 million of direct military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and small arms.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lashed out at Obama's criticism that the GOP effort was tantamount to U.S. military action.
"Intellectually dishonest," McCain said, adding: "We can't wait for our European friends. We need to lead."
In a preview, Corker said on the Senate floor that Obama's policies are creating dangers for U.S. citizens and amount to nothing more than rhetoric.
Republicans said they had 19 GOP senators backing the legislation.