Top U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incursion into the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine an assault on democracy.
“It’s stunning to see – in this day and age – a tyrant rolling into a country. This is the same tyrant who attacked our democracy in 2016,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a press conference, recalling Putin’s interference in U.S. elections.
Pelosi and other top Democrats returning from participation in the Munich Security Conference this week praised President Joe Biden for working with European allies to maintain a united front in deterring Russia.
“The decision to essentially cancel the process of moving forward with the [Nord Stream 2] pipeline, I think, is a very strong indication of the solidarity of NATO and our other allies to punish Putin for this naked aggression and the prospect of further devastating sanctions,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told reporters of the decision to cancel certification of the key pipeline delivering Russian gas to Europe.
Biden announced Tuesday that the U.S. also would sanction Russian officials and banks in response to Putin’s speech claiming Donetsk and Luhansk were independent of Ukraine. The White House is expected to announce additional sanctions this week.
Sequence of sanctions
Despite significant bipartisan unity for deterring Russian aggression in Ukraine, Democrats and Republicans have struggled to agree on how to sequence sanctions to discourage and penalize Putin for incursions into the independent eastern European nation.
An estimated 150,000 Russian troops have massed at the border with Ukraine in recent weeks. Putin’s claim that Donetsk and Luhansk were no longer a part of Ukraine opened the door for so-called Russian “peacekeeping” troops to go into those areas. The U.S. and its allies called this mission a false-flag operation to allow further incursion into Ukraine.
Congressional Republicans have criticized the White House’s approach to the crisis, calling the Russian leader’s move an invasion and accusing the Biden administration of waiting until it is too late to deter Putin.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the first round of sanctions was “too little, too late. First, these sanctions should have happened before Putin further invaded Ukraine — not after. Second, economic sanctions now need to more aggressively target Putin’s oligarchs to make sure they feel real pain. Third, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that today’s incremental sanctions will deter Putin from trying to install a puppet government in Kyiv.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a top Capitol Hill ally of former President Donald Trump, had a direct message for Biden late Tuesday: “You said a couple years ago that Putin did not want you to win because you're the only person that could go toe-to-toe with him. Well, right now, Mr. President, you're playing footsie with Putin. He's walking all over you and our allies.”
Working with allies
Democrats praised Biden, though, for working in concert with European allies and avoiding escalating the crisis.
“I think the administration handled this, given the Russian intentions, as well as it could be handled,” Schiff told reporters Wednesday. “They telegraphed in advance the punitive sanctions that would be applied if Russia invaded. I think it makes sense not to enforce those sanctions before Russia invaded. If you do that, then Russia loses its disincentive and figures, 'Well, we've already been sanctioned. We might as well move forward with it.' ”
Small minorities within both the Republican and Democratic parties have cautioned against escalating tensions with Putin.
“While we work in coordination with our European allies to respond and impose targeted sanctions, we must continue to do all we can to de-escalate and utilize the full power of diplomacy to find a negotiated solution to this crisis,” Democratic Representative Barbara Lee – the only member of Congress to vote against authorizing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – said in a statement Wednesday.
“I am confident in President Biden’s repeated commitment to keep U.S. military personnel out of any conflict in Ukraine itself,” Lee continued.
Several members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have expressed concern the U.S. could become mired in a ground war in Ukraine, despite Biden's repeated statements that the U.S. would not commit troops to the conflict.
Senator Bob Menendez and Senator Bob Risch, the top-ranking Democrat and Republican, respectively, on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have separately introduced sanctions bills that would end Russian access to international banking transactions, provide hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, and cut off funding for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Congress is in recess this week and will be back in session at the end of the month.