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Corker talks tough to Russia in MJ

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U.S. Sen. Bob Corker describes Russian President Vladimir Putin's motives for occupying Crimea. JOHN BUTWELL / Special to The Wilson Post

MT. JULIET -- Addressing Mt. Juliet Chamber of Commerce members Wednesday afternoon, Tennessee’s junior U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said the U.S. should send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that his troops may not enter east Ukraine.

To keep that from happening, “tomorrow the European Union (EU) will announce its sanctions,” Corker said, but the U.S. itself should wait and use possible sanctions against Russia as a deterrent.

As the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker explained that the EU’s sanctions will have the greatest impact on Russia because the U.S. only does about $40 billion in trade with Russia annually, while the EU does about $400 billion – 10 times as much.

“Our options are limited. We’re not going to put boots on the ground. But we can hurt them with financial sanctions,” Corker said. The administration must move carefully, he pointed out, and reserve the strongest sanctions to protect east Ukraine.

“This looks clumsy, but we have to do what can be done with European support,” said Corker, who spoke on the phone with President Barack Obama Tuesday about the crisis. “We can’t use all our arrows in advance.”

Being tough with Russia and the role Corker played in the recent UAW vote at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant are the two topics the senator said he’s been asked about wherever he goes in Tennessee, so he discussed them both in his visit Wednesday to speak before Mt. Juliet West Wilson County Chamber members and the press at the Holiday Inn Express.

“Russia is acting like some power from the 19th century,” Corker said, and its behavior presents a challenge for the U.S. to try to deal with. But for good or ill, the U.S. is not alone in its dilemma or in its commitment to defend Ukraine.

“We need to remember that Europe is a free, whole democratic place,” Corker said. And when the Soviet Union broke up, “the Ukraine had a large stockpile of nuclear weapons, which they gave up when we (the U.S. and NATO) said we would support them.”

Corker pointed out that Crimea originally was given to Ukraine by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev over 50 years ago and that the Russians have wanted it back ever since then. Corker also said he thinks most Crimeans want to be part of Russia, although he did say the election there this week was “rigged.”

The choices on the ballot were to become part of Russia or to split from Ukraine, with no third choice to remain part of Ukraine –not exactly a real choice, Corker said.

When asked about Putin’s motives, Corker said he thought Putin has two major ones.

“He said the worst thing to happen was the break-up of the Soviet Union,” Corker said. “He wants to rebuild that in some form.”

Corker also pointed out that Putin has to deal with internal threats to his government. “They are not doing well economically, while others around them are,” he said. So Putin thinks that with a show of strength, he can deal with those internal problems.

Back home in Tennessee, Corker explained his involvement with the Volkswagen union vote by first reminding his audience that he had been mayor of Chattanooga.

“I was involved in business there,” he said. So as mayor, he promoted the creation of an industrial park. “We were looking for a world-class manufacturer.

At first, he said, the city tried to recruit Toyota, but when Toyota went elsewhere Corker, by then a U.S. senator, started working with VW.

“They had lots of meetings in my living room,” he said. “I met with the German CEO and the American CEO.”

This led to his involvement with the company’s union issues, Corker said, who actively opposed the unionization of VW. “I was worried about the UAW’s impact on the state,” he said. “I knew it would affect us economically.”

He also said he supports the Keystone pipeline from Canada. “It’s a no-brainer to put in a pipeline instead of using trucks and trains to transport the oil,” Corker said. “Over ground is a safety hazard.”

He added that it is not a case of whether Canada will obtain the oil and transport it. “Canada will build a pipeline, one way or the other,” he said. “The question is, ‘Do we want oil from a friendly neighbor?’ It’s a national security issue.”

Corker also said we already have 17 or 18 pipelines between the U.S. and Canada, one of which was approved as recently as 2009.

Peter Schulert, CEO at Environmental Science in Mt. Juliet, expressed concern about excessive government regulations. He said President Obama plans to raise the salary limit for paying overtime to professionals such as chemists up to $50,000.

In response, Corker said he would favor a “regulation holiday” to defer possibly-needed changes until the economy improves.

“We want good policies and I don’t care if you’re Republican, Democrat or Independent,” Corker told Schulert. “But politicians sometimes try for an agenda without worrying about the impact.”

He added, “Congress needs to do a better job with taking time to peel back things that we no longer need, thing that are obsolete.” And although he said he tries to be non-partisan at events such as Chamber visits, “where there are both D’s and R’s in the audience,” he did speculate about what might happen if the GOP takes control of the Senate in the fall elections this year.

The result would be a more business-friendly legislative branch of the federal government, Corker told the crowded roomful of Chamber members.

Correspondent Connie Esh may be contacted at

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