WASHINGTON - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has denounced what he calls Russia’s "blatant aggression" in Ukraine. Hagel’s remarks in Georgia came as the rights group Amnesty International said it was no longer possible for Russia to deny its forces are engaged in fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking alongside his Georgian counterpart, Irakli Alasania, in Tbilisi Sunday, Hagel said Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as well as Georgia, pose a long-term challenge that the United States and its allies take very seriously. But, he said, the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin have also brought the United States and its friends in Europe closer together.
"The deepening ties between NATO and Georgia are especially important given the dangerous and irresponsible actions of President Putin. His illegal annexation of Crimea, which the United States does not recognize, and the ongoing military campaign Russia is mounting in eastern Ukraine pose a grave threat to regional stability, as had its actions inside Georgia’s internationally-recognized borders," the defense secretary said.
Russian forces invaded Georgian territory in August 2008 and, following a five-day conflict, Moscow unilaterally recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Enhanced NATO partner
Hagel called on Russia to fully withdraw its forces from Georgia’s borders. He also hailed Georgia’s new status as an enhanced NATO partner and said he expects it will lead to full NATO membership.
The rights group Amnesty International Sunday accused both Ukrainian militia and pro-Russian separatists of war crimes, including indiscriminate shelling, abductions, torture and killings. The group’s international Secretary-General, Salil Shetty, released satellite imagery alleging the presence of Russian armor and artillery in eastern Ukraine.
"What we have is new satellite images which we’ve acquired and it’s quite clear that there’s direct and active influence of Russia. Russia can’t deny not being a party to the conflict anymore," Shetty said. "Very systematic, well-organized mobile artillery and armored units in place; there’s no way the separatist forces could have organized themselves. On top of that, we also have eyewitness accounts of movement of Russian tanks across the border. So, I think really that it’s not deniable anymore. As far as we are concerned, it’s an international conflict."
Russia has consistently denied the presence of its troops in Ukraine, while rebel leaders say they have been helped by Russian soldiers who have used their vacation time to battle Ukrainian troops.
At last week’s NATO summit in Wales, President Barack Obama said he was both "hopeful" and "skeptical" that a cease-fire reached Friday between the two sides would hold. Renewed violence Sunday placed the cease-fire in jeopardy.
Obama also said NATO will supply Ukraine with non-lethal support, including body armor, fuel and medical care for wounded Ukrainian soldiers and logistics and command-and-control assistance.
But on U.S. television Sunday Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it is time to give Kyiv what it needs to defend itself.
"Until Russia returns its thousands of forces, tanks and military equipment back over the border into Russia and there is a border that is secure, hopefully with international observers, and Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty is retained, there is not a solution; this is a temporary pause," Menendez said. "And, we have to take Putin’s calculations and show him he’s wrong, which means that sanctions being considered beyond what we’ve done by both the EU and the United States should take place, should move forward and, secondly, that we should give the Ukrainians the ability to fight for themselves. That will change Putin’s calculations."
The senator, who met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv last month, has indicated he will seek a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress to allow the Ukrainian leader a forum to make his case for military assistance.
Lack of public support for action
Jonathan Adelman, associate professor at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, said the West is reluctant to get involved in the conflict.
"If you look at the polling data, 17 percent of Americans want us to do more. They’re just not interested in this. ISIS seems to be more important, Middle East crises like Syria or Iraq are more important. I think, secondly, there is a feeling that we can’t possibly be moving towards a war with Russia and, therefore, the feeling is, ‘let the Europeans do more.’ And, that’s correct, the Europeans should do more. The problem is the Europeans themselves have spent less than two percent of their GDP on the military, not that we’re going to war, but the other side is just not afraid of us," said Adelman.
Adelman warns inaction by the West in Ukraine will make Russian aggression elsewhere more likely. And he said other nations, like China, are watching the West’s reaction closely as it moves aggressively to expand its control in the South China Sea.
The Ukraine rebellion launched in April by pro-Russian separatists has killed more than 2,800 people and created tens of thousands of refugees fleeing areas near the Russian border.