Senate starts recess without taking action on Ukraine-Russia crisis

Chamber departs as Biden, Blinken warn of attack in next several days

Belarusian Air Force Mi-24 helicopters fire during joint exercises with Russia as the Kremlin continues massing forces along its border with Ukraine.  (Maxim Guchek/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images)
Belarusian Air Force Mi-24 helicopters fire during joint exercises with Russia as the Kremlin continues massing forces along its border with Ukraine. (Maxim Guchek/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted February 18, 2022 at 6:30am

The Senate adjourned Thursday for a weeklong recess without passing any bill that would impose new sanctions on Russia to help deter an invasion of Ukraine or provide additional military aid to the Eastern European country as the crisis there worsened.

“The stakes go far beyond Ukraine. This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people, as well as for the foundation of the United Nations Charter and the rules-based international order that preserves stability worldwide,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a Thursday address in New York to the U.N. Security Council.

Lawmakers did approve a sense of the Senate resolution right before they left for a Presidents Day week break. That nonbinding measure reaffirmed “unwavering United States support for a secure, democratic, and independent Ukraine,” while recommitting the United States to “providing political, diplomatic, and military support, including additional lethal and non-lethal security assistance to strengthen the defense capabilities of Ukraine.”

The nonbinding measure from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was agreed to by voice vote.

Symbolic gestures of support aside, the lack of a bipartisan agreement on a sanctions bill this month also meant Congress did not approve any new security assistance for Ukraine that was expected to catch a ride on the scuttled broader sanctions package.

While providing Ukraine with more weapons to resist Russian aggression has broad bipartisan support, shipping arms typically takes the U.S. government months after congressional approval to process and deliver to Kyiv.

That means it is not clear how much of a tactical setback for Ukraine’s armed forces the lack of additional U.S. security assistance, including new “lend-lease” authorities, will mean if Russia invades and steamrolls through Ukraine in the coming days, as President Joe Biden predicted Thursday morning. In such an event, lawmakers and analysts believe the military situation would evolve into a long-running and bloody conflict pitting an Ukrainian insurgency against occupying Russian forces.

“I’m hopeful that we can still get some of those pieces in, maybe to the [fiscal 2022] omnibus or someplace else,” Shaheen told reporters Wednesday, referring to the Ukraine security assistance provisions, as well as other types of economic, civil society and defense support for Eastern European countries that were tucked into Republican- and Democratic-crafted sanctions bills.

Moscow asserted this week it had begun drawing down some of the approximately 150,000 troops it has gradually amassed around Ukraine’s borders, but the United States and European allies disputed that claim. For this reason, Feb. 20 – the end date for Russia’s military exercises, which was the Kremlin’s ostensible justification for the massive troop deployment – is seen as the real telling point for whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is actually seeking to de-escalate or attempting a feint before launching a massive military attack on the former Soviet republic.

“Our information indicates clearly that these forces – including ground troops, aircraft, ships – are preparing to launch an attack against Ukraine in the coming days,” Blinken said.

Sanctions breakdown

There was optimism earlier this month from key Senate negotiators that they were on the verge of agreement on a bipartisan legislative package that would put in place a severe sanctions regime on key Russian banks, energy projects – and even Putin himself – that would snap into effect if there was an invasion. But the deal fell apart this week after Republicans seemingly walked away and offered their own sanctions measure.

“I think it’s too bad, but it doesn't mean there’s not a consensus around here,” Portman, who chairs the Senate Ukraine Caucus, told reporters Wednesday. “Everybody here stands with Ukraine, is against what Russia is doing, and believes that sanctions, military assistance are necessary.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who was the leading Democratic negotiator, said his side had gone “a long way” in trying to meet Republicans on things like accepting some pre-emptive sanctions on Russia as punishment for its pattern of destabilizing actions against Ukraine, as well as requiring sanctions against the controversial Russian-German Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

“We said if Russia invades Ukraine, then within 30 days either the Germans will end [the pipeline] or the president shall ultimately sanction Nord Stream without a waiver, which meant an absolute end,” Menendez said.

But Democrats were not willing to go as far as Republicans wanted in mandating certain types of Russian banking sanctions that European governments would have balked at due to the economic harm they would have caused their countries. Europe has much greater financial links and exposure to Russia’s economy than does the United States.

Democrats were not going to agree to “the type of sanctions that are going to break the coalition with Europe that we desperately need to multi-lateralize,” Menendez said, describing them as “the secondary sanctions of all Russian banks, not even of selected Russian banks.”

Ultimately, however, Biden already has the legal authorities he would need to sanction Russia, regardless of whether Congress clears a new sanctions bill.

The Biden administration has generally been supportive of lawmakers’ efforts to negotiate a deterrent sanctions package for Russia, seeing it as sending a signal of how unified the United States is in standing by Ukraine. But the White House was seen as leery of Congress forcing the president to sanction Russia’s energy and banking sectors with such severity that it might have split Washington and its European allies.

“Despite struggles to come to an agreement on sanctions that was satisfactory to both parties, I still believe that Congress ultimately has a unified message for Putin: do not invade,” Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who co-chairs the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “If Russia disregards this message, they will face a unified response from Congress, the administration, and the entire Western world.”
Other forms of support

Besides sanctions on Russia, lawmakers are studying a range of ways to offer support to Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe. Those legislative options could be tweaked in the weeks ahead depending on whether Moscow goes through with its threatened invasion.

Later on Friday, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers are slated to introduce legislation that would direct the Pentagon to submit to Congress a plan for providing support to a Ukrainian insurgency in the form of weapons and intelligence sharing. It would also order the U.S. intelligence community to produce an assessment on “gray zone assets of Russia” that the United States could seek to target or co-opt in order to change Moscow’s behavior toward Ukraine.

House Intelligence Committee member Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., who is sponsoring the bill along with the committee’s top Republican, Michael R. Turner of Ohio, said the intent of the legislation is to help Ukrainians “stand and fight” after a Russian invasion.

“I think that rather than waiting until such an insurgency materializes, planning before on what is necessary for that insurgency to succeed is what motivated us to devise this bill,” the third-term lawmaker said in an interview.

Additionally, expanding and expediting security assistance to Ukraine has strong bipartisan support. The Democrats’ Russia sanctions bill from Menendez includes language that would encourage the prioritization for the rest of the fiscal year of the delivery of excess defense equipment to Ukraine, while also authorizing the Pentagon to use “to the maximum extent possible” its Special Defense Acquisition Fund to speed deliveries of U.S.-purchased weapons to Ukraine.

Similarly, Republicans want to give the U.S. government the authority to “lend or lease” defense equipment to Ukraine that it would not otherwise be able to immediately afford.

What's more, both parties support providing Ukraine with $500 million in additional Foreign Military Financing grants to purchase U.S. weapons. Republicans want to see at least $100 million of that amount directed to the purchase of lethal assistance such as air-defense and anti-ship systems.

Notably, the three-week continuing spending resolution the Senate cleared Thursday increases by $100 million the funding available to Biden for immediate foreign military assistance to respond to emerging crises. Some of that funding could be directed toward Ukraine while lawmakers work to hash out the details of a fiscal 2022 omnibus spending deal that is expected to be finalized in March.