Russia Masses Troops on Ukraine Borders as Congress Spars

While U.S. Congress members were out of town on a week-long break, their Russian counterparts redrew the map of Europe.

Russia’s parliament took just three days to approve a treaty annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, as pro-Russian units pushed forces loyal to the government in Kiev out of their last positions in Crimea and Russia massed troops, armor and airpower all along the Ukrainian border.

While the crisis has escalated, U.S. lawmakers have been sparring inconclusively with one another and with President Barack Obama for several weeks over legislation to provide economic aid to the new, Western-leaning Ukrainian government. Though the Senate is set to hold a procedural vote today, the aid legislation still faces a series of hurdles.

Western democracies have a hard time moving fast, said the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the security alliance. “Our democracies debate, deliberate and consider the options before taking decisions, because we value transparency and seek legitimacy for our choices, and because we see force as the last, not the first resort,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Washington last week.

Obama last week did move quickly to impose some economic sanctions on Russian officials and business entities, using his executive authority to bypass Congress. In announcing the sanctions, he called on U.S. lawmakers to approve his request for economic aid for Ukraine quickly.

‘Right Away’

“I once again urge Congress to pass legislation that is necessary to provide this assistance,” the president said, taking note of his meeting with allies this week in Europe. “And do it right away. Expressions of support are not enough. We need action.”

The lawmakers so far have been unable to enact anything stronger than non-binding resolutions.

The House of Representatives passed the first of those on Feb. 10, shortly before the elected pro-Russian government led by Viktor Yanukovych fell to the pro-Western protest movement.

The House measure didn’t mention Russia directly, though it took an implicit swipe at Russian President Vladimir Putin by saying the House supports the “democratic and European aspirations” of the Ukrainian people “and their right to choose their own future free of intimidation and fear.”

Seizing Areas

Twelve days later, Yanukovych disappeared from the Ukrainian capital. Five days later, on Feb. 27, he turned up in Russia, and the next day Russian-backed forces began seizing key areas in Crimea.

Not until March 6, when Crimea’s parliament scheduled a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, did the U.S. House pass a bill, H.R. 4152, permitting American loan guarantees to Ukraine. Both the House and Senate also passed non-binding resolutions condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The Senate plans a procedural vote today on a Ukraine aid package that would provide a $1 billion loan guarantee to the country, authorize $150 million in direct assistance and include sanctions against Russians and Ukrainians considered responsible for violence and intimidation as Russia took control of Crimea. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the measure on March 12 by a bipartisan vote of 14-3.

IMF Fight

The Congressional Budget Office, because of a difference in how IMF subsidy costs are calculated, projects the bill would actually reduce U.S. direct spending by $373 million over the next 10 years.

Included in the measure would be another $150 million in assistance, $100 million for security cooperation with Ukraine and other Central and Eastern European countries, and $50 million to promote democracy and good government. CBO also projects the U.S. would spend an additional $16 million to help Ukraine recover lost or stolen assets.

The Republican-led House doesn’t agree with the Senate, controlled by the Democrats, on what a Ukraine aid package should contain.

The Senate legislation would increase U.S. support for the International Monetary Fund, a provision opposed by House Republican leaders and by some senators. The Ukraine aid bill that passed in the House intentionally omitted the provision sought by Obama to boost the U.S. share, or quota, at the IMF and implement a 2010 international agreement giving rising economies more voice.

Boehner Resists

“I understand the administration wants the IMF money, but it has nothing at all to do with Ukraine,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters on March 13.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said it was unclear what effect the delays have had. “It’s impossible to know whether events would have unfolded differently if the United States had responded to this Russian aggression with a strong, unified voice, which we did not do,” he said on the Senate floor today.

Part of the U.S. commitment to Ukraine, White House press secretary Jay Carney said March 21, “is the need to ensure that the quota reforms for the IMF are passed, as well.

‘‘If the lawmakers of both parties believe, as the president does, that we need to maximize the assistance we can provide to Ukraine, the way to do that is to pass legislation that includes these reforms,’’ he said, ‘‘because that will increase the flexibility and leverage that the IMF has to provide assistance to Ukraine.’’

Gas Exports

After today’s Senate vote, the congressional situation becomes even murkier. Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, has said he wants to include a provision in the measure that would expedite permits to export natural gas, and other changes could be made to reflect the escalating tension between Washington and Moscow.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said the Senate should pass the House bill and consider the IMF issue separately.

House lawmakers could vote as soon as this week on a bill to increase U.S. sanctions for Russia, including additional asset freezes and visa bans on senior officials and corporations. The measure would codify sanctions announced by Obama and encourage imposing more on Russians with ‘‘significant influence over the formation and implementation of Russian foreign policy’’ involving Ukraine, according to the bill text.

The measure, H.R. 4278, includes additional economic assistance for Ukraine and would signal U.S. plans to increase natural gas exports. Republicans have said that eventually would reduce Russia’s leverage over other European nations that depend on its gas exports.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been pressing congressional leaders to vote for Ukraine aid and IMF authorization, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

‘‘It is certainly an immediate step that Congress can take to help provide some necessary assistance on the ground, and we’re continuing to press that,” Psaki said at a March 21 briefing.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.