Analysis: GOP Bill to Counter ‘Russian Aggression’ Could Put Dems in Tough Spot

A Russian Gvodzika 122-mm Self-Propelled Howitzer fires during military exercises on April 3 in southern Russia, near Ukraine. (ANDREY KRONBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

A Russian Gvodzika 122-mm Self-Propelled Howitzer fires during military exercises on April 3 in southern Russia, near Ukraine. (ANDREY KRONBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS A bill that would require an increased US military footprint in Europe could put Senate Democrats and the Obama White House in a tough spot because such measures allow Republican incumbents and candidates to sound a tougher-on-Russia tone than loyal-to-Obama Democrats.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. Mike Turner, a GOP rising star from Ohio, on Tuesday will unveil a bill they say “counters Russian aggression towards Ukraine and NATO allies by enhancing US military posture and capabilities in Europe and reassuring US regional allies and partners.” (Fellow-HASC member Mike Rogers, R-Ala., is a co-sponsor.)

Hawkish Republican lawmakers have treaded lightly for weeks as Russia’s invasion, occupation and unrecognized-by-the-West annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Mostly, they have criticized US President Barack Obama for what they see as his “weak” response to Russia’s moves and his “failed” reset policy with Moscow.

That appears to be changing, as McKeon and Turner will offer the first GOP-crafted bill that will call for specific US military moves to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It remains unclear whether the McKeon-Turner bill will ever reach the House floor. That should become more clear as the week rolls on and House GOP leaders face reporters.

What is immediately clear is the tough bind House passage would put on Senate Democrats and the White House — but especially the former as the midterm election cycle heats up.

For instance, a Defense News reporter recently asked Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., if he would insert any language into his version of the 2015 national defense authorization act (NDAA) that would require more US forces in Europe to deter Putin.

Such a move would be controversial. Levin is an old-school consensus builder who often prefers to offer controversial provisions as amendments during the panel’s mark up of the legislation or on the Senate floor. Either would force Democrats to vote on this year’s premier national security/foreign policy matter, giving their campaign-trail rivals potential ammo.

Levin paused before answering and took a deep breath. He place one hand in his jacket pocket and stared down at the floor. As he considered his response, he blinked quickly.

“I need to think about that,” Levin said. “I’m just not ready to go there.”

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment because the McKeon-Turner bill has yet to be formally introduced. But she did spell out some military moves the White House already has set in motion and is planning.

“To date, those efforts have been mostly taken advantage of existing missions, such as deploying 12 additional F-16s to our aviation training detachment to Poland and augmenting our contribution to the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission with [six] additional F-15s,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Tuesday. “We are going to do our part to increase our rotations of ground and naval forces to complement our increased aviation presence and will look for others to step up, too.”

US officials have urged other NATO members to make “similar contributions … as quickly as possible,” Hayden said.

She made a point that the military moves Obama has ordered are meant not as a “provocation or as a threat to Russia.” They are merely meant “as a demonstration of NATO’s continued commitment to European security.”

The Obama White House and its Senate Democratic allies — who have been so loyal on national security/foreign policy issues since 2009 — clearly are walking a tightrope between diplomatic and tough. House Republicans possess no such direct responsibility to defuse tensions and deter further Russian aggression, nor a sense of loyalty to a commander in chief of their own party.

This could allow them to sound tougher on Russia and Putin, and puts Democrats in a difficult position.

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.
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