Sen. Levin Warns Putin, Exposes Coming Void for Democrats

Is Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin the Democrats' last veteran statesman? (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Is Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin the Democrats’ last veteran statesman? (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama is resisting Republican calls to “explain to the American people” why it’s time to get tough on Russian President Vladimir Putin. But one veteran Senate Democrat did so on Thursday. The problem for members of the party Obama leads is that very senator is retiring, meaning they soon will lose perhaps their most effective voice on national security issues.

The senator is Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who took to the chamber floor Thursday to speak in favor of a bill to send aid to Ukraine and slap new sanctions on Russia.

“This bill sends a message to the people of Ukraine, and all those in Europe concerned about Russia’s aggressive provocations,” Levin declared, going on to praise the measure’s loan guarantees to Ukraine, funding for “fair” elections, and measures to “support Ukraine’s efforts to free itself from captivity to Russian energy supplies.” He also touted its “sanctions and asset freezes” on Russian officials, saying the bill would “send a strong message to Russia.”

But when it comes to answering Republican’s call to get tough — very tough, military options tough — on Putin, it was Levin on Thursday who made the kind of case the GOP wants to hear from the commander in chief they so often slam as weak and indecisive.

“It provides for increased security cooperation with Ukraine and with other nations in Central and Eastern Europe, including military assistance, training and advice. By demonstrating our support for Ukraine and the other democratic nations of Central and Eastern Europe, and by taking action against the individuals who have participated in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Congress can provide a key element in the broad, sustained and energetic diplomatic approach this situation requires.”

Levin talked of a need for an “intensifying effort” from US officials if Putin opts against changing his behavior. He praised Obama for “wisely” deciding against “responding to Russian provocation with actions that would further destabilize matters or work against Ukraine’s interests or our own.”

But it didn’t take Levin long to use the kind of rhetoric GOP lawmakers and pundits say they want to hear from the commander in chief.

Where Obama, during a speech at a G7 meeting in Brussels, Belgium on Wednesday, spoke of NATO to urge European nations to begin actually paying their share of alliance expenses, Levin hinted the Western group might actually use its military forces.

“Along with NATO, we have made clear that Russia’s actions will not go without response. … Russia should be under no illusion that the US response to its actions ends today with the passage of this legislation. We must remain prepared to take additional steps to ratchet up the pressure on Russia and to help stabilize Eastern Europe. Russia also should have no doubt that the United States and our NATO allies take seriously our responsibilities under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Under Article 5, an armed attack against any NATO ally is considered an attack against all members, and will draw any actions deemed necessary to assist the ally under attack, which may include the use of military force. Actions such as redeployment of military assets, adding aircraft to the NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission and surveillance flights over Poland and Romania are evidence that we take those Article 5 responsibilities seriously. And, as our NATO commander in Europe … has said, if Russia continues such provocative actions, ‘we need to think about our allies, the positioning of our forces in the alliance and the readiness of those forces in the alliance, such that we can be there to defend against it.’

“And as this legislation makes clear, we will continue to enhance our security cooperation with Ukraine and other Eastern European nations. One important step will be for our uniformed military professionals to expand their relationships with counterparts in Ukraine and other Eastern European nations to help build the kind of capable, professional forces that can improve their security.”

Where Obama said Russia actions “must be met with condemnation,” Levin talked about using force. But he did so with the careful tone of a veteran statesman.

An issue for national Democrats is Levin is one of the party’s remaining influential voices on national security and foreign policy issues. He will retire when his term ends early next January.

One Washington insider recently remarked that the “Democrats just don’t have a deep bench on this stuff.”

Sure, there’s Secretary of State John Kerry, but he is expected to retire after his run as the country’s top diplomat ends. That leaves Levin and possible/likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, herself a former secretary of state.

But Levin will be gone soon, and what if Clinton opts against a second presidential bid — or runs and again loses? Who in the Democratic Party will fill Levin’s shoes?

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett