09/18/2014 01:24 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Congress Pays Ukraine Lip Service, Again

NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

As newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visits Washington and addresses Congress, the United States has a second chance to help Ukraine continue its evolution as a free and vital bridge between Russia and the West. I say second chance, because we missed the first time when it might have averted the painful conflict which has ensued.

A year ago, Congressional supporters of human rights and democracy sat out Ukraine's choice between an open, pro-Western future and one dominated by the Russian Federation. Rather than traveling to Kyiv to make the case for signing the association agreement with the European Union and for releasing Yulia Tymoshenko -- the opposition leader then imprisoned by a politically driven court -- U.S. politicians were content to let then-President Viktor Yanukovych make up his own mind, with no personal outreach from Capitol Hill.

Wait, Members of Congress unwilling to step into another country's business?

To be sure, once the die was cast, and Yanukovych had yielded to Moscow's wishes -- triggering mass protests, his eventual resignation, and Russia's soft invasion of Crimea -- some brave American legislators began making the pilgrimage to Kyiv's Maidan Square. But until that point, influential democracy champions and exiled idealists were loath to give Yanukovych the satisfaction or legitimacy conferred by a Congressional delegation. In other words, boycott -- at least until Yanukovych released Tymoshenko, which was a condition for the EU agreement.

Yanukovych was Moscow's corrupt tool, but allowing him to remain in power while establishing the new European trade relationship might have averted Russia's takeover of Crimea and eventually its permanent control over eastern Ukraine. At least, we might have tried.

Would earlier, hands-on U.S. support for true Ukrainian independence have incentivized and enabled the Moscow-friendly Yanukovych to meet the EU's conditions, without having to resign and leave Russian leader feeling powerless?

What should be clear now, is that without getting our hands dirty, Ukraine and its healthiest aspirations will be left to the wind. $70 million in MREs and night-vision goggles is not going to establish a line in the sand or allow Ukraine to repel the unlimited capacity of Russian forces, let alone to fulfill its economic and political destiny.

If Congress wants more than cheerleading points for encouraging Poroshenko down the road of existential confrontation with Russia, it needs to back its applause with real dollars, for real weapons, real economic aid, and real trade concessions. With mere days left before campaign season shutters the Capitol, it's unlikely to happen, nor is the president likely to push for more while the Senate is up for grabs on November 4 and his global conflict plate is already overflowing.

But no one should think that Congress has done its job, or that the United States has kept its promises, or that we have not squandered the post-Cold War promise for a conflict-free and democracy driven Europe. It may happen on its own through some miracle, but it won't be because we stood with Ukraine.