U.S. Sen. Bob Corker expects to increase sanctions against Russia if it continues to bully Ukraine in the Crimean conflict, but he is counting out the possibility of military action.
“We have to destabilize them economically. We’re not going to do anything militarily,” Corker, a Chattanooga Republican, told members of the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce during a Tuesday power luncheon at Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center.
U.S. officials also expect help with sanctions from the European Union, which does much more trade with Russia than the United States, Corker said.
“If these first sanctions don’t change behavior, we’ll step it up,” he said.
With some critics calling this first round of sanctions too soft, Corker predicted after the Chamber event that the Senate would give the Obama administration “tools they don’t have today” to punish Russia economically. He acknowledged that the Russian stock market actually went up after the U.S. sanctions were announced.
World attention focused on the region when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into the Crimean area of Ukraine. Over the weekend he declared the Crimea a sovereign state amid a referendum in which the Crimean people purportedly asked to be annexed by Russia.
U.S. officials responded by declaring the referendum an international rules violation and enacting sanctions to limit travel and freeze assets of Russian and Crimean leaders who support a break between Crimea and Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian parliament reportedly mobilized 40,000 reservists in response to Russia’s move on Crimea and to stop advances into the eastern part of the country.
Corker pointed out that the United States signed a treaty with Ukraine after the Soviet Union dissolved in the late 1980s in which the Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for assurances that it would be a sovereign nation.
Russia’s aggression in Crimea seems to have captured the American people’s attention, even more than developments in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, said Corker, a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The United States has 4.5 percent of the world’s population but puts out 22 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, Corker said, and people such as Chamber of Commerce business leaders want to maintain stability around the globe.
“I think we do a terrible job sometimes of communicating that,” Corker said, but he added, “The American people are not going to condone putting boots on the ground.”
U.S. economic policy
The former Chattanooga mayor predicted little action the rest of this year on U.S. fiscal policy or the Affordable Care Act. But he said the Senate could pass a bill that would “wind down” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation’s primary mortgage institutions. They were at the epicenter of the national housing industry collapse in 2008 because they backed too many risky mortgage loans and nearly folded before being bailed out with $187 billion in federal spending.
Senate legislation would replace them with a mortgage-bond insurer backed by the federal government with private interests guaranteeing the first $10 billion in any losses of capital.
Corker called it “a better system to protect taxpayers.” But a Bloomberg article predicted that such a move could hurt the nation’s housing comeback if lenders further tighten their rules and force middle- and low-income customers out of the home-buying market.
Fending off UAW
Corker showed no regrets about taking an active stance against the United Auto Workers’ effort to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, which he helped recruit.
The senator explained that he “had a glimpse into what the UAW was really like” during the nation’s auto manufacturing crisis. Corker said he felt the UAW tried to organize at the Chattanooga plant simply to survive.
He acknowledged working with Gov. Bill Haslam on the matter when they were “getting some negative reactions from companies looking to come to Tennessee” because of the UAW move at Volkswagen.
Corker said he felt the plant workers in Chattanooga were already working in a “world-class facility” and he couldn’t see how the UAW would improve their situation.
Most pointedly, he said, union organizers were asking plant employees to fill out cards backing unionization instead of holding a secret ballot. Ultimately, a unionization vote failed.
Corker told the Chamber crowd he doesn’t oppose the concept of unions and said one of his former companies used union workers.
“I received a fair amount of criticism for my involvement,” Corker said, but he made no apologies. “This was something that was going to be harmful to the community … and to the state and its ability to bring in jobs.”