The consensus against using force holds, despite Russia’s invasion

Lawmakers back new sanctions and military aid, but Ukraine will have to fight alone

Ukrainians fled Kyiv as Russia invaded their country. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Ukrainians fled Kyiv as Russia invaded their country. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Posted February 24, 2022 at 3:43pm

As the Russian military pushed into Ukraine on Thursday, lawmakers issued forceful statements and pledges to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his aggression.

But there was no indication that any had changed their minds about using the biggest stick in Washington’s arsenal, the United States' military.

In the midst of what many in Washington are calling the most serious act of aggression in Europe since World War II, Ukraine will have to fight alone. 

Ahead of the invasion, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby announced that the U.S. was pulling all of its military advisers, 160 members of the Florida National Guard, out of Ukraine.

The U.S. has instead deployed troops, attack helicopters and fighter jets to European nations on NATO’s eastern flank. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on Thursday ordered 7,000 U.S. troops to deploy to Germany, which already hosts a large U.S. military presence. And several thousand U.S. soldiers are already in Romania and Poland, which share a border with Ukraine.

Biden has sent a smaller deployment to Bulgaria.

The United States, by virtue of its membership in the NATO alliance, is obliged to defend any member that’s attacked, and Biden has said that the U.S. will defend “every inch” of NATO territory. 

No appetite for war

But Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, and Putin’s invasion hasn’t yet shaken the Washington consensus that Ukraine isn’t worth a direct military conflict with Russia. Congress has backed the president. “I don’t think there’s any situation where we will have American boots on the ground,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday.

The day before, a bipartisan group of 43 representatives, led by Democrat Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon and Republican Warren Davidson of Ohio, wrote to Biden to warn him that Congress must approve any military action against Russia. “The American people, through their representatives in Congress, deserve to have a say before U.S. troops are placed in harm’s way or the U.S. becomes involved in yet another foreign conflict,” they wrote.

Scattered across the country due to the congressional recess, members tweeted statements condemning the Russian attack’s missile strikes and aerial assaults and the ground invasion of Ukraine’s major cities. 

After weeks of disagreement over new sanctions legislation, glimmers of legislative action did begin to emerge, however, as key lawmakers signaled a readiness to support the Biden administration’s deployment of aggressive sanctions against Russian elites and to prepare a new aid package for Ukraine. 

"If there's any authority [Biden] doesn't have that he does need to increase sanctions on Russia, he'll get it from Congress. And I think Congress, on a very bipartisan basis, will also be willing to provide whatever resources are necessary to help Ukrainian defense,” Schiff said. 

Schiff also suggested cutting Russia off from SWIFT, a financial messaging system that links the world’s economies and facilitates international transactions. The suggestion has gained steam among European leaders but would be an unprecedented move.

Biden on Thursday told reporters that newly announced sanctions against Russia’s financial institutions and richest citizens will exceed the effects of blocking Russian access to SWIFT. He said that personal sanctions against Putin are on the table.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham echoed the sentiment in a tweet, saying that there is “broad bipartisan support for an emergency supplemental to include aid to the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian military.”

Strong words

Other lawmakers, though, confined themselves to condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in press releases.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said in a release that Putin should be held accountable for his actions. 

Montana Democrat Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said in a statement that he stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. 

Maine Republican Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Putin has once again shown himself to be a “ruthless autocrat who does not hesitate to kill innocent people.”

In some ways, lawmakers' relative inaction is a reflection of partisan divisions that stalled previous legislative efforts to deter the invasion. 

For weeks before Russians entered Ukraine, as defense officials and the White House warned that Putin was readying an offensive, lawmakers from both parties rallied around efforts to pass a massive sanctions package targeting Moscow. 

But fault lines quickly emerged among members. Republicans pushed for aggressive measures that would have sanctioned Putin and his inner circle before an invasion began. Democrats, fearing going around the White House and giving up diplomatic leverage, wanted sanctions that would be triggered only after an invasion had begun. 

In the end, Senate Democrats and Republicans introduced two differing pieces of legislation — and passed neither. Instead, the Senate last week approved a six-page nonbinding resolution (S Res 519), a symbolic motion that carries no legislative weight, that scolded Putin for building up over 150,000 troops on the Ukrainian border.