Poroshenko’s 24 Hours in Washington: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

by Robert McConnell

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, was in Washington for 24 hours last week. He had meetings with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry in addition to addressing a joint session of Congress. He came at the invitation of President Obama, and he came at a critical time for Ukraine – and the world — having suffered the bold Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s arrogant insurgency followed by its stark invasion of the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts in eastern Ukraine.

The Good:

Thursday Poroshenko presented his case clearly and forcefully. In the chamber of the House of Representatives he was interrupted by standing ovations ten times as he made the case that Ukraine’s fight for its freedom and sovereignty is also the West’s fight:

Today, aggression against Ukraine is a threat to global security everywhere. Hybrid proxy wars, terrorism, national radical and extremist movements, the erosion of international agreements, the blurring, and even erasing, of national identities: all of these threats now challenge Europe. If they are not stopped now, they will cross European borders and spread throughout the globe.

He pointedly reminded Congress that 20 years ago, “in the Budapest Memorandum, Russia, along with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and China, vowed to provide for the inviolability of Ukraine’s state borders and territorial sovereignty.” But “in reality,” he said, “what we got from Russia was annexation and a war that has brought Ukraine to the brink of its survival.” Left unsaid but only to be missed by the blind was that the reality includes that the United States has not lived up to its vow — meaning that the consequences of Russia’s violation of virtually every security-related it has signed, including the Budapest Memorandum, also rest on Washington.

In making his case for arms so that Ukraine can “win the peace” he used the now widely reported comment that “one cannot win a war with blankets!” When he said this the chamber erupted in applause. When Poroshenko said, “Allow me to also say this: there is no way, at no price, and under no condition, that we will ever put up with Crimea’s occupation” only one person out of the hundreds in the House chamber did not rise and applaud — Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.) whose inexplicable and confusing statements on the crisis isolated him and his views weeks ago.

The fact is that Congress heard and applauded Poroshenko’s message and intends to act to provide Ukraine what it needs. Before the day was finished the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations unanimously reported Chairman Bob Menendez’s bipartisan Ukraine Freedom Support Act in a mark-up session interrupted only by amendments offered to strengthen the legislation’s support for Ukraine.

As has been the case for 100 years – beginning in 1919 – when Ukraine has needed specific support from the United States, the driving force to provide or try to provide that support has been Congress. If it were up to the legislative branch, Ukraine would have had more support months ago. Collectively Congress understands what the United States vowed to Ukraine in Budapest in 1994. Congress understands what is at stake and what is needed.

The message sent by the United States Congress on Thursday was that the U.S. stands with Ukraine not as a distant cheerleader but as a strategic and committed partner.

The Bad:

Despite the warm face President Poroshenko put on his meeting with President Obama, and despite the $53 million in “non-lethal” aid promised at the White House, the reality is that President Obama continues to keep off the table much of what the United States needs to supply Ukraine in order for Ukraine to defend itself and thwart Russian intentions in Ukraine and surely in numerous other sovereign European countries.

The Ugly:

Ugly is the difference between the messages sent from Washington to two different audiences.

Ukraine surely is disappointed that the White House is still keeping lethal weaponry off the table, but the people of Ukraine have to be grateful if not emboldened by the enthusiastic reception Poroshenko received from Congress. The congressional reception was warm, genuine, understanding, and enthusiastic.

But to the Kremlin, with all the savvy of its paid army of professionals, there surely was a different message. Putin knows Congress cannot act alone. He knows and understands that after hearing and applauding Poroshenko Congress recessed until after the elections. Congress’ ability to force administration action is at best delayed while Ukraine is in a very precarious situation: a “one-sided ceasefire,” invaders in Luhansk and Donetsk, a build-up of Russia army forces in Crimea, and the continued onslaught of ugly propaganda. Putin knows that at least for now his forces will not face a Ukraine with sophisticated weaponry that can match his. He knows Washington’s role is contained.

For now the people of Ukraine must do with what there is, they must face the international thug with what they have and what has been provided. But it is critical that Congress must not let Poroshenko’s words fade in the turmoil of elections and other pressing issues. When Congress returns there will be much unfinished business, but fulfilling our commitments and helping to secure proper international order and discipline by fully supporting Ukraine must be a priority. Congress must force its will on the president.

— Robert McConnell is co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. 

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