WASHINGTON – In Ukraine for the past several days, U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.) said he has found a country eager for new elections and government reform – but with a "sword hanging over them" in the form of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Putin is not a friend of democracy. Putin does not care about anything other than trying to expand Russia into the old Soviet Union," Gerlach, of Chester County, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Kiev.
Gerlach, co-chair of the Ukraine caucus in the House, has met with members of the Ukrainian parliament, the country's acting president and prime minister and civic groups. He said the country's leaders realize they need to end corruption and that the nation "is very stable." But Russia looms as a threat to both Ukraine and its neighbors, he said.
"We haven't seen that kind of military expansionism, imperialism, by a major country in the world for a long, long time and so it's very troubling," Gerlach said. "It has not only Ukraine very concerned, as you would imagine, but also other Eastern European countries who are part of NATO, like Poland, who fear that Russia is only one step away from them."
Gerlach also said that Jewish groups told him that they don't fear widespread anti-Semitism – which has been a growing worry among some.
"That's not what we found in our visit here," Gerlach said. While some individuals express anti-Semitic views, he said Jewish groups don't see such statements as systemic.
"They don't feel as if the current government of Ukraine, by way of policy, is anti-Semitic and they get along with the non-Jewish populations in their various cities and regions of Ukraine very, very well," Gerlach said.
Gerlach left Philadelphia Sunday and is returning from Ukraine Thursday. He is part of a nine-House member delegation visiting the country.
Gerlach became involved in Ukrainian issues in the early 2000s, when he sponsored a bill to lift trade restrictions with the country. He is not Ukrainian, but said he his district and southeast Pennsylvania in general has a large Ukrainian population.
"They're very concerned about what's going to happen," he said.
Gerlach said the United States should provide support, but that Ukrainian leaders need to come to agreement on what type of aid they want and must clean up their own institutions.
"We clearly need to support this government as much as we can with technical assistance, with assistance relative to economic growth and development," he said. But, "unless they stamp out the corruption that exists through the whole strata of government, it's going to be very difficult for foreign investment to come into the country and really put the money into economic growth that they want to see."
He added, "they recognize it. They admit that right up front."
Gerlach said some of the country's leaders would like to see more direct military aid from the U.S. in the form of anti-aircraft weapons or ammunition, while others prefer to seek only "non-lethal" aid in the form of technical advice, resources such as gasoline and fuel and equipment such as helmets, body armor.
"It wasn't clear to me if there's a consensus among the Ukrainian government officials as far as how far the United States should go," he said. When they reach an agreement, though, Gerlach said he would support sending more assistance.
"Most of the people, including the government officials, are looking forward to the May 25 election so there can be a legitimate election conducted to determine who the next president is going to be," Gerlach said. "The issue that's overhanging everything here is, 'what is Russia doing?'"