OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole said Monday that the U.S. should send weapons, including tanks, to Ukraine to help it resist Russia's moves on its territory and to send Russian President Vladimir Putin a strong message.
The 90-year-old Republican Party icon and former U.S. Senate majority leader said Putin "has sort of sized up" Democratic President Barack Obama and "concluded that he's not a strong leader."
Dole's comments came as Vice President Joe Biden began a high-profile visit to Ukraine and only days after an announcement in Geneva that talks between Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union produced an agreement to take tentative steps toward calming a volatile situation in eastern Ukraine. Last month, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which had been Ukrainian territory.
Dole made his remarks during a reception at the local GOP headquarters in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, the first of 10 homecoming receptions in his native state over three days. He discussed Ukraine at the prompting of Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, himself a former U.S. senator.
"There are a lot of things we could do. We could give the poor Ukrainians some weapons," Dole told about 75 people who gathered to meet him and have photos taken with him. "Putin, I think, senses that Obama will not do anything, so he's got a pretty free hand."
Dole said he'd also put a missile defense system in Poland. In 2009, Obama scrapped the final phase of a defense system Poland sought, though his administration is now pursuing a smaller, phased in system that would have missile interceptors deployed in Poland in 2018.
"I think I would first of all send some tanks and some weapons to help the Ukrainian people," Dole said. "Putin would understand then that we're serious. Those would be consequences."
He added: "Our foreign policy is pretty weak."
Dole has said he scheduled his tour of Kansas to meet with past backers and new supporters, and his event in Overland Park was packed with GOP activists and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, whose district is centered on the Kansas City area. Dole's tour will be in northeast Kansas, but he's already scheduled a second one for May that will include stops in central Kansas cities, including Salina and Wichita.
The former Senate majority leader had help from an aide walking into the room, and he made his remarks seated in a cushioned, wing-backed chair. He remained seated for pictures and demonstrated the dry, often self-deprecating wit for which he was known during his political career.
"I don't how many more chances I'll have, so we're going to try to make all 105 counties," he said of his plans to tour the state this year.
Dole's career in Congress spanned nearly 36 years and he served as Republicans' leader in the U.S. Senate for 11 years, stepping down in 1996 to run against President Bill Clinton.
Well-wishers at the Overland Park reception also admired Dole as a war hero and a link to the generation that won World War II. Dole overcame disabling wounds from combat, sustained as he charged a German position in northern Italy in 1945, and he recalled that day he was injured, responding to a question from Lenexa 10-year-old Henry Walston.
Discussing Ukraine again later, he said he believes Putin would like to expand Russia to regain territory once controlled by the Soviet Union, including Estonia and other Baltic states. He also said he believes the European Union has too many economic ties to Russia to provide much support for tough sanctions.
"We need to demonstrate to Putin, without sending troops over there, that we're serious about the Ukraine and we want to help them maintain their liberty, and so far all we have are speeches saying there will be consequences," Dole said.
The U.S. imposed limited sanctions on Russia last month after residents of Crimea voted to split with Ukraine in a referendum that U.S. said was illegitimate. Russia formally absorbed Crimea after the referendum..