Days after returning from the Ukraine where he offered support to anti-government protesters, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., faulted President Obama for emboldening Russian President Vladimir Putin's "bullying" in the region.
"In recent months, President Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate and threaten Ukraine away from Europe," McCain said in remarks at the Atlantic Council in Washington today. "Russia's bullying extends beyond Ukraine to the other so-called EU Eastern Partnership countries."
He blamed, in part, Obama's handling of the civil war in Syria and his response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons for emboldening Russia, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's closest allies.
"This pattern of behavior amounts to a Russian bid for a kind of quasi-imperial dominance over its neighbors, a newfound assertiveness that has only grown in the void left by the administration's absence of leadership in other parts of the world, especially Syria," McCain said. "President Putin has been emboldened by President Obama's empty threats of red lines and the resulting loss of U.S. credibility."
Russia played an instrumental role in getting Syria to agree to open its chemical weapons stockpile to international inspection and destruction, after international investigators concluded that they had been used on several occasions in the course of the civil conflict there.
In the Ukraine, protests have gone on for weeks after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich pulled out of plans to join the European Union and announced an intention to join the Eurasian Customs Union instead.
McCain said that the quarter of a million Ukrainians, many of them young people, who stood in the streets in subfreezing temperatures during his visit to Kiev this weekend did so to protest the country's widespread corruption and the creeping influence of Russia.
"What membership in the EU meant was an alignment with Europe rather than Russia," McCain said. "It meant an outcry against the corruption that now besets the entire country."
After spending more than two hours with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, McCain said he believes Yanukovich understands that "to out of hand reject membership in the EU would have been a catalyst that would have caused real disruption."
In order to support the cause of protesters in the Ukraine who seek to be more closely aligned with Europe than Russia, McCain insisted that Obama needs to be clear-eyed about who Russian President Putin truly is.
"This is not a man with a soul," McCain said. "This is a KGB apparatchik colonel who has risen to the top of the greasy pole. We must understand who we are dealing with.
"For us to believe that Vladimir Putin is going to give up Ukraine to the West without a fight and exercise many options, I think, is foolishness," he added.