WASHINGTON -- A California congressman who once arm-wrestled Vladimir Putin is taking an unusual stand on the crisis in Ukraine.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from Orange County, was among a handful of lawmakers who voted against loan guarantees for the new government in Ukraine.
And when a measure came before the House earlier this week “condemning the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity by military forces of the Russian Federation,” Rohrabacher was the only House member to vote “present.”
Rohrabacher, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he opposes Russian troops in the Ukraine but supports letting the people of Crimea vote on whether they want to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia.
“It’s not the United States’ job to go in and be the arbiter of every problem,” he said in an interview this week outside the House chamber.
“The arbiter should be the people themselves through the ballot,” added Rohrabacher, who said he supports an election monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “There’s a whole section of Ukraine where the people think of themselves more as Russians than Ukrainians.”
“The Cold War is over,” he added. “Putin is not Satan.”
Rohrabacher and his fellow Orange County Republican John Campbell were among 23 House members to oppose the aid package.
“I don’t think it’s our job to borrow $200 million from China and then put ourselves on the hook for $800 million if their loan isn’t paid back at a time when we’re so financially strapped ourselves,” he said.
“I don’t have any trouble condemning the Russian troops crossing the borders into Ukraine,” Rohrabacher said, while noting he opposed other provisions of the resolution that he said blamed Russia for the crisis.
Referring to a provision that assailed Russia for using economic measures, including the “manipulation of energy prices” to put pressure on Ukraine, Rohrabacher asked, “We’re going to condemn the Russians for using their natural resources for what’s best for Russia?”
He said he also disagreed with the provision of the resolution that called on President Obama and other world leaders to boycott the G-8 summit in Sochi, Russia.
“That might have been the perfect venue for trying to work things out,” Rohrabacher said. “That’s where the big guys get together, and they can talk behind closed doors and be frank with one another.”
As for arm-wrestling with Putin, Rohrabacher said the incident occurred in the early 1990s when Putin, then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, and others visited the United States.
Rohrabacher said he invited the visitors to a weekend touch football game and Putin showed up. After the game, he said, they went to a pub, leading to the arm-wrestling match.
“He put me down in a millisecond,” Rohrabacher said.