WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives cleared a financial aid package for Ukraine on Thursday, heeding the White House's request that Congress respond quickly to Russia's military incursion into Crimea.
The measure passed handily by a vote of 385 to 23, with all the no votes coming from Republicans. It authorizes the State Department to grant up to $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine. Because the bill uses money from funds already appropriated, the total additional cost to the United States would be about $200 million.
House Republican leaders spoke in recent days of the need for Congress to move expeditiously, which is why they left out President Barack Obama's request for separate language to increase resources for the International Monetary Fund.
"Today, once again, I’m calling on Congress to follow up on these words with action, specifically to support the IMF’s capacity to lend resources to Ukraine and to provide American assistance for the Ukrainian government," Obama had said in a statement at the White House before the vote.
A House GOP leadership aide explained that the fastest way to render financial assistance to the government in Kiev would be by expanding existing loan guarantees, appropriated for Jordan and Tunisia, to Ukraine.
"When you have Russian tanks crossing the border, speed is of the essence," the aide told The Huffington Post. "Taking [the IMF issue], that's been under debate for four years, and trying to throw that on is a little opportunistic and will slow down getting assistance to Ukraine."
Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, which was released on Tuesday, includes a measure to boost the U.S. share of funds going to the IMF by shifting roughly $63 billion from an existing credit line to the international agency. The White House failed to get the IMF increase included in a January spending bill and is now pointing to the crisis in Ukraine to underscore its importance.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is developing its own aid package. A spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the committee, said it was unclear if Obama's IMF request was in the proposal, noting that "everything is subject to change" given the fluid situation in Ukraine.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said the upper chamber would not take up the House bill this week. The timing of an aid package vote in the Senate depends on negotiations over the text of the legislation, the aide added.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), another member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Wednesday that the main sticking point was whether to include voluntary or mandatory sanctions against Russia along with the loan guarantees. The House did not include sanctions in its aid package and is expected to consider them separately next week.
Also on Thursday, Obama announced a host of targeted sanctions against individuals and entities deemed to be violating Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The executive order includes the freezing of U.S. assets and visa restrictions on certain individuals. An administration official told CNN that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not on the visa ban list.
"It is an unusual and extraordinary circumstance to sanction a head of state, and we would not begin our designations by doing so," the official said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday that he supported the limited sanctions outlined by Obama, calling it a "welcome first step."
"You've heard me call President Putin a thug. That's because he is," Boehner said. "And he's counting on the U.S. to sit back and watch him take whatever he wants."
"We remain committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to put President Putin in check and prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its neighbors," the speaker added.
Boehner also reiterated his call for the administration to expedite the approval of U.S. natural gas exports, pointing out that Russia has an "energy stranglehold" on much of Europe as the world's second largest producer of natural gas. More than half of Russia's natural gas exports to Europe flow through Ukraine.
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03/25/2014 6:18 PM EDT
Senate To Vote Thursday On Ukraine Aid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set up a final vote Thursday on a bill that would provide Ukraine with up to $1 billion in loan guarantees and impose targeted sanctions against Russian officials.
Reid made the announcement Tuesday after dropping a controversial provision from the Senate bill that would have boosted the U.S. quota at the International Monetary Fund. Republicans in both chambers of Congress opposed the IMF reforms, which were specifically requested by the White House to increase Ukraine's borrowing capabilities at the institution.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier Tuesday that Republicans would still want to vote on a number of amendments, but the IMF language was the major sticking point. Without it, the Ukraine aid package is expected to pass both the Senate and the House without much drama or delay.
03/25/2014 5:24 PM EDT
Moldovan Separatists Claim They Downed Ukrainian Drone
Authorities in a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova claim to have brought down a Ukrainian drone on a reconnaissance mission.
NovostiPMR, the news agency of Trans-Dniester says Tuesday that the region's intelligence agency downed the drone on March 23.
The region broke away from Moldova in 1990. There are 1,500 Russian troops stationed there guarding hundreds of tons of weapons.
According to the agency, the drone was "launched from Ukrainian territory by people close to the Ukrainian Security Service and the Defense Ministry."
It said the plane illegally crossed into Trans-Dniester violating its air space. It added that the authorities in the region reserved the right to use "all available methods" to defend the territory which is not internationally recognized but is supported by Russia.
03/25/2014 4:18 PM EDT
Russians Take Over Last Ukrainian Ship In Crimea
Russian forces appeared to be attempting to take over the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea on Tuesday after a Ukrainian military spokesman reported explosions in its vicinity and helicopters approaching the vessel.
Russian forces armed with stun grenades and automatic weapons have seized ships and military bases from the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Crimea in recent days as part of Russia's largely bloodless annexation of the region.
Kiev, which calls Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal, ordered its remaining forces to withdraw for their own safety on Monday, but not all troops have yet left the Black Sea peninsula and some ships have been prevented from leaving.
"Around 1900 (1600 GMT) there were several explosions from the direction of the minesweeper Cherkasy in the Donuzlav bay," Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told Reuters.
"Some Mi-35 helicopter gunships were observed hovering in the area. Speedboats and a tug were seen approaching Cherkasy," he said.
On Monday Cherkasy attempted without success to break to the open sea through a blockade at the entrance to the inlet. The Russian navy blocked the route earlier this month by scuttling three hulks in the channel.
Seleznyov said he was unable to confirm whether Russian troops had boarded the ship.
03/25/2014 3:02 PM EDT
Russian Military Holds Exercises In Moldova
Russia's military staged training exercises on Tuesday in Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova that is a focus of tension following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
NATO's top military commander said on Sunday he was worried that Russia might have its eye on Transdniestria, a largely Russian-speaking region that borders western Ukraine, after seizing Crimea, which has a narrow ethnic Russian majority.
The Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for Russia's Western Military District, Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, as saying that Russian forces stationed in Transdniestria had "conducted an anti-terrorism drill and practiced operations to rebuff an attack on their military base".
Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.
03/25/2014 1:02 PM EDT
No, Ukraine Will Not Have Nukes: Ministry Of Foreign Affairs
Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, in something of a Shermanesque statement, that the country will not develop nuclear weapons, one day after the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs seized on a proposal by some Ukrainian MPs to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
"Ukraine has not planned, is not planning and is not going to plan to resume its nuclear status," a spokesman for the agency said at a press briefing.
Earlier this month, several opposition MPs introduced a draft bill to withdraw Ukraine from the NPT. Russia's Foreign Ministry seized on it, saying "the dysfunctional new Kiev authorities may pose a threat to the security of Ukrainian nuclear sites under the current Ukrainian circumstances," in a statement.
"We do not trust attempts of the Ukrainian delegate to dissociate from this position. The NPT is in serious danger."
Ukraine, which suddenly became the world's third-largest nuclear state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave its nuclear arsenal back to Russia for disposal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for security assurances from Russia that it would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.
03/25/2014 12:34 PM EDT
Five Scenarios For Russia's Relations With China, Moldova And Nato
The world's industrialized nations have turned their back on Russia, following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.
Though the G8 cannot expel its members, countries can refuse a member permission to attend, effectively expelling them.
With jitters in the east of Europe about further Russian incursion, and wariness in China, the state of world diplomacy could look very different by 2015.
HuffPost UK has asked military and international relations experts on five scenarios that could occur now Russia looks increasingly isolated, and as the West looks impotent.
Read here what they predict.
03/25/2014 12:27 PM EDT
Senate Democrats Consider Dropping IMF Provision
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may drop a controversial reform to the U.S. share at the International Monetary Fund from the Ukraine aid package, according to Senate leadership aides.
The provision was requested by President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leaders, but faces widespread opposition from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that his members would not support the aid bill unless the IMF language was dropped.
A Senate leadership aide said removing the provision is now "under consideration in order to move the bill." In exchange, Republicans would drop their demand to delay a Treasury Department rule that cracks down on the political activities of nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4)s.
The House of Representatives passed its own legislation providing aid to Ukraine earlier this month without the IMF reforms, and planned to move on a sanctions bill that also left the issue untouched. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said boosting U.S. funds at the IMF has "nothing to do with Ukraine," and his aides indicated they would not have enough votes to move the Senate bill through the lower chamber in its current form.
The Obama administration and Senate Democrats have been making the case that ratifying the IMF reforms, which were agreed upon in 2010, is critical to Ukraine's borrowing capabilities in a time of crisis. Still, some House Democrats acknowledged that the White House was complicating the process by renewing debate over a contentious issue when providing aid expeditiously is of the utmost importance.
03/25/2014 11:46 AM EDT
Obama Dismisses Romney's 'Geopolitical Foe' Comment
President Barack Obama dismissed the notion that former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was correct in saying that Russia was "our number one geopolitical foe" Tuesday, in a response to a question from Jonathan Karl of ABC News. He said that Russia was merely a "regional power" that was acting out of "weakness."
"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and we have considerable influence on our neighbors," he said. "We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."
03/25/2014 11:26 AM EDT
Obama Says He's Not Interested In Putin's Motivation
At a press conference in Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama sidestepped a question on whether he "misread" Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he wasn't so interested in his motivations.
"With respect to President Putin's motivation, I think there has been a lot of speculation. I am less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States but the entire international community are looking to uphold."
He added that the United States is "concerned" about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine.
03/25/2014 10:39 AM EDT
Will Russia Annex Moldova Next?
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