Back at work this week following a holiday recess, U.S. lawmakers are feeling the pressure to agree on legislation sanctioning Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
While Democratic lawmakers praised the executive actions taken by U.S. President Joe Biden to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for bombarding the independent Eastern Europe nation, some Republicans said the actions came too late and suggested harsher additional steps.
“It is time we dropped the hammer and completely shut down the economy in Russia and that we do more to assist Ukrainian defenses,” Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a press conference Wednesday.
Risch said his NYET Act, one of many Ukrainian aid and Russian sanctions proposals pending in Congress, would create a “resistance fund” for Ukrainians of at least $350 million.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Biden announced the U.S. would follow its European allies and close its airspace to Russian flights, as well as create a task force to go after the assets of Russian oligarchs.
In the week since Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. and European allies have taken several unprecedented steps to personally sanction Putin and members of his government and cut off Russia’s access to the global financial system.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised Biden’s latest moves to punish Putin, saying in statement Tuesday, “Our nation and the entire world saw President Biden’s resolve that democracy will prevail over autocracy. America’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and to the Ukrainian people remains ironclad. The Congress stands behind [the] president’s determined leadership in strengthening the allied response against Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked war against Ukraine.”
‘A defining moment’
Several proposals in the Senate and House would build on sanctions legislation. Democrats and Republicans struggled for weeks in the lead-up to the invasion to agree on whether preemptive sanctions would deter Putin.
Lawmakers eventually passed a resolution condemning the possible invasion and left town without reaching a compromise. But returning lawmakers said the images of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and the Russian bombardment of Ukrainian cities have changed the atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
“There’s a growing consensus, a consensus in the Senate, that this is a defining moment in the world,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Wednesday while introducing a resolution calling on Putin and members of his government to be held responsible for war crimes.
“I hope we can find consensus around the package to help the Ukrainian people, but this to me is a layup,” he said. “This is maybe the most effective thing we can do is to let the generals in the army of Russia know you follow Putin’s orders at your own peril. There were 161 people prosecuted in the Balkans conflict, from privates to prime ministers, generals included. I want the world to rally around the rule of law.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez announced Wednesday that the committee would hold a full hearing on Ukraine next week to assess the next U.S. steps moving forward. Menendez has praised Biden’s executive actions but suggested there is more to be done.
“The Biden administration’s actions to date to hold Vladimir Putin to account for his illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine are a clarion call for the United States to continue reinvigorating our alliances; stand up to our adversaries; repair the State Department and other agencies; and renew American leadership on the global stage. For this, President Biden deserves immense credit for his adept diplomacy that has brought the international community together in a way we have not seen in decades; to stand for human rights, international law and a principles-based world order,” Menendez said in a statement Tuesday.
Democratic Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi told VOA the SUPPORT Act he co-sponsored with Representative Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Democratic Representative Marc Veasey, would take steps “to prepare and assess ourselves to prepare for supporting an insurgency. That’s very important.”
If passed, Krishnamoorthi said, the legislation would supply “not only weapons, not only money, but also intelligence. So our partners are able to take advantage of any useful intelligence to defend themselves. Remember, at the end of the day, these people are fighting for their freedom. They’re fighting for their democracy. And so we need to be helping them as much as we possibly can … without crossing the line.”
US troops not an option
Biden has repeatedly said that no American troops will be committed to the conflict, and the Pentagon said earlier this week there were no plans to consider a no-fly zone over Ukraine, despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request.
Public opinion polling shows Americans have little appetite for a ground conflict in Europe. In a public opinion poll conducted by the U.S. news network CNN, 42% of Americans said they would be in favor of military action if sanctions failed. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have reflected those views.
“I do think that it would certainly exacerbate the situation to put boots on the ground. I think the no-fly zone is something that we should consider. I know there are implications to that. I think that Vladimir Putin will perceive that as a major threat and maybe even a declaration [of war],” Republican Representative Jodey Arrington told VOA.
“We’re not going to go to war,” Republican Representative Victoria Spartz, the first Ukrainian-born member of Congress, told VOA. “You know, it’s not a NATO ally so we don’t have the Article 5 commitment. This is just something unfeasible.
“Now, we can do some other things. We can talk about providing maybe humanitarian corridor or safe passages so people who actually can get evacuated — not get killed there. So I think that is very legitimate, and we need to be proactive on this issue.”
But, she emphasized, the world should view Putin’s actions differently.
“It’s the genocide of a nation,” Spartz said. “It’s not a war.”
Jamie Moreno contributed to this report.