Their loyalties to Ukraine are diverse and run deep. They’re not unified on every issue stemming from the war but are operating in lockstep agreement that the Biden administration can and should do more to help the young democracy defend itself against Russian aggression.
“We have to be on a war footing related to Ukraine,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who co-founded the House Congressional Ukraine Caucus in 1997 and now leads it with three co-chairs.
A Polish American, she’s visited Ukraine more than any other member of Congress. Kaptur’s maternal grandparents were from eastern Poland, in an area that is now part of Ukraine. She first visited Ukraine in 1973 when she was 27 years old. “My journey there probably helped ultimately propel me to Congress,” she said.
Like Kaptur, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., has family ties to the former Soviet state. His mother was from Ukraine, and his father was from Hungary (and once spent two years in a Siberian gulag). They fled Soviet communism after World War II and landed in America.
Quigley’s district includes the Ukrainian Village in Chicago and is home to one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the country. And Fitzpatrick’s last assignment as an FBI agent was in Kyiv. His brother, the late Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, served in the caucus, and Brian Fitzpatrick has followed that example, acting as co-chair since coming to Congress in 2017.
“Heartbreaking,” Fitzpatrick said of the harrowing images broadcast from the streets of cities like Mariupol and Bucha.
“I've been working so hard on this,” he added, a sentiment echoed by his co-chairs. They sat down for an interview with CQ Roll Call in late April to discuss how their priorities have shifted since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“This was about corruption. This was about hope for this democracy,” Quigley said of the caucus’ previous work. “And now — it was an entirely different subset of issues, what we were thrown into. It just changed overnight.”
Kaptur stresses that the caucus has “been around,” meeting with hundreds of Ukrainian parliamentarians and executives over the years, long before the current crisis. But until recently, their fellow lawmakers and most Americans never gave much thought to Ukraine, so the first step was cutting through the shock.
“They had never really understood what a real enemy is. … This was all a grainy black-and-white documentary about Germany’s blitzkrieg. That’s their sense, the closest thing to this magnitude, in Europe,” she said.
“A lot of people are emotionally upset about this,” Quigley added.
It has been a long sprint since the war began, the co-chairs said. Together, they don blue and yellow Ukrainian flag pins every day on their suit lapels next to their red, white and blue. The caucus meets every two weeks and boasts around 90 members, including Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., the only Ukrainian-born lawmaker in Washington.
They have worked extensively with Ukraine’s ambassador, Oksana Markarova, and arranged meetings with members of Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada. They helped organize a call with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom Kaptur described as a “transformational figure for liberty in the modern era,” and pushed for his virtual address to Congress, which was held in March.
And Kaptur, Quigley and Fitzpatrick have each made their own fact-finding trips to the region since the invasion, or “reinvasion,” as they sometimes refer to it, a nod to the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
One meeting they’re still waiting on is with President Joe Biden. As the co-chairs urged the White House to act on key issues this spring, they requested an audience. But so far it hasn’t happened, though Biden invited other lawmakers who traveled to Ukraine to the Situation Room this week, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Things may not be moving as quickly as they would like, but the caucus has seen some wins. When Biden tried to tie new military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine to a separate pandemic relief bill that has been stalled for months, they pushed back.
“It’s using the plight of people in Ukraine to try to get a totally unrelated legislative initiative passed. It’s unacceptable,” Fitzpatrick said.
His three co-chairs adamantly agreed that the Ukraine package should be a stand-alone vote. “War is war,” Kaptur said.
Bowing to pressure from congressional Republicans and members of his own party, Biden this week dropped the idea of linking the two measures, and the $40 billion Ukraine supplemental quickly passed the House on its own.
Another bright spot came last month, when the White House agreed to extend Temporary Protected Status to an estimated 60,000 eligible Ukrainian nationals currently in the U.S., allowing them 18 months of deportation protection and work authorization.
Quigley and others had been pushing for those protections since the earliest days of the war. “We cannot send our Ukrainian friends and neighbors into a warzone … anything else would be a mistake that history will never forget,” Quigley urged Biden on Feb. 28.
There is more left to do, the co-chairs said. Congress’ role does not stop with the supplemental funding, and they want to keep pressure on the White House to use its powers, too. For one thing, many in the caucus believe the Biden administration should designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism — a status the Kremlin would then share with Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria — opening the door for the Treasury Department to enforce a new set of sanctions.
“And it also makes them an international pariah, that if you’re financially dealing with a state sponsor of terror, there’s a lot of reputational damage that comes with that,” Fitzpatrick said.
‘The speed of war’
A critical, if not the most critical, issue related to the war is energy independence, the co-chairs agreed.
“This has to be about energy independence,” Quigley said at the outset of his interview alongside Kaptur.
She cut in: “That’s exactly what I was going to say.”
Biden through executive order has banned the U.S. import of Russian oil, liquefied natural gas and coal. Other nations have been slower to reduce their reliance on Kremlin-sourced energy, though the G-7, which includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Italy and Japan, pledged just this week to phase out or ban the import of Russian oil.
“What Austin said about ‘the speed of war’ has to be applied to everything we think about, including energy,” said Quigley, referring to remarks by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III. “It’s not weaning off anymore — it’s the urgency of and the speed of war to cut off energy dependence on Russia yesterday.”
Kaptur and Quigley focused on the need for more investment in natural gas by the U.S. and its allies. Kaptur suggested there should be a surge in LNG production from Canada, which has the second largest Ukrainian diaspora outside Russia, with 1.4 million people of Ukrainian descent.
She also noted that it was under the Trump administration’s watch that much of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline was built to run Russian gas directly to Germany.
“There was a somnambulance in Europe that all this was going to happen,” she said. Fitzpatrick echoed that complaint, saying, “There are a lot of countries that cut deals with the devil. And that’s manifesting right now.”
But Fitzpatrick and Harris hold the current occupant of the Oval Office responsible for Russia’s economic resilience.
Fitzpatrick said the Russian ruble trading at pre-invasion levels signals that the U.S. has not taken swift enough action on energy imports or sanctions to respond to what all four co-chairs agree are war crimes committed by President Vladimir Putin.
“If we want to stop this invasion, we can tighten the noose around their economy and dry them up and basically cut off the funding and the lifeblood of their killing machine right now,” Fitzpatrick said.
“But the reason we’re not doing it is because of fear of economic backlash. And when you’re talking about human life, that’s got to take the priority,” he added.
Harris, interviewed the day the supplemental request was released, said if the Biden administration didn’t better leverage U.S. domestic energy by increasing production to bring down the price of oil, he would be “hesitant to blindly support tens of billions of dollars of spending when [the administration doesn’t] do the most basic thing, which is to wield our geopolitical power through energy.”
After assessing how taxpayers’ dollars would be put toward Ukraine’s defense, Harris ultimately voted for the package, as did his three co-chairs.
The Budapest Memorandum
Both Kaptur and Fitzpatrick were quick to point to the 1994 agreement that the U.S. reached with Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, in which Ukraine agreed to hand over its nuclear arsenal, the world’s third-largest at the time, in exchange for security assurances.
It’s not an official treaty. But both lawmakers say the Budapest Memorandum, as it’s referred to, means the U.S. needs to stand by its commitment to Ukraine if it aims to reach successful denuclearization agreements with other countries.
“Precedents matter,” Fitzpatrick said.
“And nobody’s talking about that. … That’s huge,” he continued. “People in Ukraine are talking about it. They feel very abandoned, and they should.”
Kaptur agreed: “History will treat America harshly for not keeping our word. … The West denuked Ukraine, and so she’s left defenseless. And that’s on our watch. So I view this as a way of making up for that big mistake.”
She also said the “evil” at the heart of Putin’s regime is hardly new. While the U.S. was preoccupied in fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin was using scorched-earth tactics in Syria that he’s now employing in Ukraine.
“Ukraine hangs in the balance. We have to take care of her,” she said.
All four caucus leaders agreed without hesitation that the world is witnessing war crimes on Putin’s part.
Referring to Russian soldiers leaving explosives planted in the wreckage of Ukrainian cities, Quigley said, “They mined corpses. They mined refrigerators. They mined toys.”
“Teddy bears,” Kaptur added. “This — this is war crimes.”
Three of the four co-chairs — Fitzpatrick, Kaptur and Quigley — immediately answered “yes” when asked if Putin’s army is also committing genocide as it plows through Ukrainian cities, leaving mass graves behind. Harris, recognizing the high civilian death toll, said he believes it “borders on genocide” but would need more information before using a term that bears “international legal ramifications.”
‘Liberty’s banner carrier’
There are billions in the supplemental bill to provide Ukraine with humanitarian aid. But Kaptur stressed delivery is half the battle, with critically needed supplies getting caught up in Washington’s bureaucratic channels.
To streamline the process, she suggested the Biden administration set up a task force “that is on a war footing.”
“And I think the Defense Department should be in charge, because they know how to move,” she said, with a forceful emphasis on “move.”
Harris said he’s all for helping Ukrainians living the horrors of war day in and day out. But he’d like to see other countries step up, including China.
“I have no problem with humanitarian aid,” he said. “But when we are running trillion-dollar deficits and we are not asking our partners around the world, our economic competitors around the world, to step up for this, I get some heartburn over that.”
The two Republican co-chairs were also quick to stress that safe arrival of humanitarian aid could be accelerated by a move that Biden has ruled out: facilitating the transfer of combat aircraft to Ukraine, as Poland offered in early March. It’s a modest request, Fitzpatrick said.
Asked what message he would like to convey to the president, Fitzpatrick said, “There’s nothing more provocative than weakness,” and he suggested that Biden take a chapter out of his predecessor President George W. Bush’s book after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“‘Freedom was attacked and freedom will be defended.’ That’s the motto that we all have to rally around. Whether it’s here or in Ukraine or anywhere else,” he said.
As the Ukrainian refugee crisis swells into the largest seen in Europe since World War II, with more than 6 million people fleeing the country, the neighboring country of Poland has taken in at least 3 million of those. Mostly women and children, many remain in Poland in hopes of being reunited with husbands, fathers and brothers fighting across the border.
Quigley said he wants to see the U.S. expand “dramatically beyond” the Biden administration’s plans to respond to the crisis, which include a pledge to take in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and a program that would allow Americans to sponsor Ukrainians for temporary admission to the U.S.
He said the crisis also “shines light on the fact that there are refugees in Yemen, Africa, Afghanistan that are not getting the attention they need. A war-torn country is a war-torn country. We need to care about them all.”
But Ukraine, a country on the doorstep of NATO that, Fitzpatrick is quick to point out, won its independence just 30 years ago — with close to half of its citizens born after 1991 and who “know little of and want no part of Kremlin rule” — is uniquely positioned in both its fight for survival and its chances of grabbing bipartisan attention in Washington.
“It’s ground zero of democracy versus dictatorships, which is the struggle that’s going on globally right now,” Fitzpatrick said.
For the four co-chairs, the question is not whether Ukrainians have the willpower to win out over Russia’s might, but whether the U.S. and other “freedom-loving democracies” will do what it takes to equip them in the fight.
“When they win, at a much greater cost than I believe they should, they will be liberty’s banner carrier,” Kaptur said.
Andrew Clevenger, Paul M. Krawzak and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.