Reporting back from Ukraine, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy told a crowd in East Rock Wednesday night that contrary to public perception, Russia’s takeover of Crimea is a sign of weakness, not strength.
Murphy, Connecticut’s leading political figure on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, was at East Rock School to hold a “town hall meeting” with New Haveners, updating them on fast-moving events to which he has served witness.
Following a March 2nd briefing at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Church, Murphy, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on European Affairs, took another jolting trip to Ukraine last weekend, spurred by the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent move to annex Crimea.
Addressing around 75 people, Murphy was able to build on some of the points that had remained vague earlier this month, while attempting to reassure the crowd – many from Connecticut’s Ukrainian-American community – that things were not quite as dire as they seem in the news.
“This [the state of affairs] is a sign to me of Russian weakness, not Russian strength,” he argued. “A couple of weeks ago Russia had entire control of Ukraine, because they had a president who was under [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin’s thumb. They have now lost control of the government in Kiev, and in a panicked reaction they’ve marched troops into Crimea.
“If the end result is that Russia gains the title of Crimea but the rest of Ukraine abandons Russian influence and joins the European Union, that is a foreign policy disaster for Putin.”
He added a somewhat unsurprising tidbit: “We think that there is a direct U.S. interest in supporting this new government [in Ukraine]. We believe we can do that with economic aide and partnership with Europe.”
National interests aside, he did not underplay the current threat: “There’s a broader precedent that is set here if the United States doesn’t react to Russia’s incursion. If Russia resets its borders because it’s angry about the direction of government, then other governments are going to take that same lesson. What message does that send [to other countries] if all of a sudden we stand back and watch Russia march into Crimea without consequences?”
With the political climate of the region rapidly hurtling towards what seems like a circa 1947 mindset, it was reassuring that said “consequences,” described rather obtusely at the beginning of the month, had taken a more concrete form: further stringent economic sanctions for “violating a century of international rules.”
What he does not believe in – key to Wednesday’s largely pro-peace, pro-ethnic freedom and pro-democracy audience – is military intervention on the part of the U.S. “There is never an excuse to cross a border and take over another country,” he said, drawing thunderous applause. “We’re going to watch this situation very carefully.”
Just how carefully was what audience members had come to hear. No surprise then that the crux of the evening came when Murphy opened the floor to questions and comments on foreign policy, Ukraine-related and otherwise.
He invited questions on Syria, Egypt and other countries. By and large, however, audience members weren’t interested in other subjects. Instead, they found several ways to rephrase a simple question about Ukraine: What comes next?
Citing an unraveling of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Myron Kolinsky offered: “We’re talking about the second largest country in Europe. We have to remember that.”
Another voice from the audience asked: “What’s next? Everyone wants to know what’s next.”
Sophia Opatska, dean at Lviv Business School, Ukrainian Catholic University, said the country’s political future could be difficult and bitter. “I don’t think there was any type of celebration in Ukraine [about the possibility of new government], because when you bury over 100 young men and women who were shot, you cannot stand that emotionally,” she said.
She paused. “What do you think should be the correct behavior of the Ukrainian government right now?”
To his standard suggestion – stabilizing the economy – Murphy added, “I admit that there’s grey here.” A lot of grey, in fact. “Who knows what Putin’s next ambition is? He’s making this up as he goes along.”