One of the most powerful messages Congress could send to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine would be to pass a defense appropriations bill, two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Thursday.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Wilson Center, Mississippi's Roger Wicker, the second most senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said funding for the Defense Department could be part of a larger omnibus spending bill. He urged President Joe Biden to get personally involved, and to call House and Senate leadership to a meeting as soon as possible to iron out any lingering differences over spending levels.
“Everybody agrees that working off of defense appropriations from a year and a half ago are completely inadequate and sends exactly the wrong signal not only to Vladimir Putin but to our friends and potential adversaries all over the world,” he said. “I hope what is about to happen would build a fire under us. Let’s get our national defense spending up to date.”
New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, a senior member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, agreed.
“You’re absolutely right,” she said. “Putin’s thinking, ‘Boy, they can’t even pass a budget, never going to be able to unite against our actions,’ and China is looking at that as well.”
The government is currently funded via a continuing resolution, which locks in spending at the levels established by the previous fiscal year’s spending bills. The current continuing resolution is set to expire on Feb. 18, meaning Congress will either have to enact new spending bills, pass another continuing resolution, or face a government shutdown.
The top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Appropriations committees have met repeatedly in recent days, but no deal has been announced.
Shaheen, who was part of a congressional trip to Ukraine last month, said she observed a resolve in the Ukrainian people.
“This is a very different Ukraine than Russia invaded in 2014 when it took Crimea,” she said. “They intend to defend their country. They understand that Russia has more troops and greater military capability. This is a country now that no longer looks east but looks west.”
Shaheen also emphasized the importance of NATO, the United States and other European allies standing together against Russia in applying economic sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine.
“One of the biggest deterrents we can provide to what Russia is thinking about in Ukraine is to present a united front,” she said. “The potential impact of sanctions, if we stand together on Russia, is about 10 times greater than if it’s just the United States.”
Wicker drew a parallel to the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which stretched on for a decade costing thousands of Soviet lives and ended with the U.S.S.R.’s ignominious retreat.
If Russia invades Ukraine at some point this month, as many observers suspect it will, Putin will have a few good days, and maybe a week, based on initial military victories, Wicker said.
“But there will be an insurgency for months and years and decades to come if Vladimir Putin makes this mistake,” he said. “Russian kids will go home in body bags.”
Shaheen noted that Putin was blaming NATO and U.S. activity in the region for causing heightened tensions, when in fact it was his own actions that have caused the current crisis.
“He’s the neighborhood bully who’s always got an excuse,” Wicker added. “And whatever we do, this time we have to give him a bloody nose.”