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My Turn: From Ayotte, a thoughtful approach on Ukraine

The recent Monitor editorial criticizing U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s views on how to deal with the Russian takeover of part of Ukraine misjudged her thinking.

Ayotte gave credit to President Obama for steps he took last week to punish Vladimir Putin’s government for invading Crimea, and she said that the United States should impose additional sanctions on Russia. She called for even broader sanctions on Russia’s financial and energy sectors, saying that tough economic penalties would send a message to Putin and potentially deter him from committing further acts of aggression.

Ayotte also made it clear that she does not see a role for U.S. forces in Ukraine. Instead, she expressed openness to helping Ukraine build up its depleted military by providing it with communications and technical assistance, as well as considering the country’s request for small arms. She also highlighted the importance of strengthening NATO, which was created to counter-balance the Russian threat.

Finally, breaking with some members of her own party, she said that the Senate should take up and pass an aid package for Ukraine – which would help keep the country from defaulting and falling into even more chaos.

Ayotte laid out a thoughtful approach to what has become a very serious national security matter. She has argued, correctly I believe, that how we respond to Putin’s aggression in Crimea will send a signal to the rest of the world. Dictators, strongmen and terrorists are watching closely to see if the United States allows Russia’s act of aggression to go unpunished – and whether we stand with our allies.

I hope the editors at the Monitor were watching that interview, because it was at odds with the recent editorial that provided a narrow and incomplete view of Ayotte’s substantial national security credentials (“From GOP troika, an unhelpful foreign policy critique,” March 23).

When it comes to Russia, presidents of both parties have mishandled Putin. Although President George W. Bush once made a questionable comment about Putin being “trustworthy,” Bush eventually came to recognize Putin’s real nature – especially after the 2008 invasion of Georgia. As a result, Bush – to his credit – began to adapt his administration’s policy accordingly. Sen. John McCain probably understood Putin more accurately than either Presidents Bush or Obama when he bluntly said that when he looked into Putin’s eyes, unlike Bush, he didn’t see the soul of a trustworthy man, but rather the letters K-G-B. McCain was right.

It’s been five years since our “reset” policy with Russia. Since then, we’ve seen Russia repeatedly thumb its nose at the United States: from cruelly banning American adoptions of Russian children, to granting safe harbor to Edward Snowden, to supplying arms to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad so that he can murder his own people.

Putin’s invasion of Crimea is only his latest act of aggression. It’s clear that the “reset” policy of accommodation toward Russia hasn’t worked. And Ayotte, who is as straight-talking and independent as the people she represents, hasn’t been afraid to say so.

Although the Monitor throws up its hands and says “there is probably nothing that the United States or any other nation could have done to prevent Putin from trying to reclaim Russia’s glorious past by invading Crimea,” the fact is that Obama’s past approach to Putin runs the risk of further emboldening him.

Teddy Roosevelt, used to say “speak softly and carry a big stick. Obama talks forcefully, a lot, and then puts the “stick” down. While I appreciate the president’s refraining from saber rattling, when we say something, we have to mean it, and we have to back up those declarations with concrete actions.

Ayotte understands the threats we face in a dangerous world, and she speaks with clarity and conviction. We need that from this administration now or we risk seeing further acts of aggression from Putin or other tyrants who think that human rights can be trampled without consequence.

(Steve Duprey of Concord is Republican national committeeman.)

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