Cracks in US support for Ukraine risk helping Putin

Cracks are forming in what has largely been a united U.S. response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, with calls rising from the right and left for President Biden to push harder for peace talks.  

The push from figures ranging from former President Trump on the right to progressive leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) on the left has thrust questions about the Biden administration’s strategy toward Ukraine into the fore as Kyiv has seized momentum on the battlefield. 

Supporters of current U.S. strategy say pressuring Ukraine into negotiations now would only help Russian leader Vladimir Putin. 

“It helps the Russians and it hurts the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians want the Russians out of their country. And right now they’re on track to do that,” said William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now with the United States Institute of Peace. 

The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) stirred up a hornet’s nest on Capitol Hill this week with the release of a letter calling for Biden to increase pressure on Kyiv to open negotiations with Moscow, and for the U.S. to explore direct talks with Russia.  

“The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks,” the 30 lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was retracted a day later amid intense criticism from within the Democratic Party.

One reason many Democrats were upset with the letter — a point Jayapal acknowledged when she withdrew it — was that it muddied a message the party is trying to send ahead of the midterms about how Republicans are a threat to U.S. unity behind Ukraine.

The letter came a week after Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) spurred concerns about GOP support for Ukraine with his warning that a Republican majority would not issue a “blank check” to Kyiv’s war efforts.  

Former President Trump has repeatedly pushed for peace talks in Ukraine while stumping for candidates ahead of November’s midterm elections.  

“With potentially hundreds of thousands of people dying, we must demand the immediate negotiation of the peaceful end to the war in Ukraine, or we will end up in World War III and there will be nothing left of our planet, all because stupid people didn’t have a clue,” Trump told a crowd in Arizona earlier this month. 

Other Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and former Vice President Mike Pence, have sought to push back on Republicans casting doubt on further support for Ukraine.

Kira Rudik, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament and leader of the liberal Golos party, attributed the strident remarks from U.S. politicians to election season and said that she expected a more united front to return in a few weeks.  

She said any peace deal that did not include the full restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty and security guarantees preventing Putin from attacking again would be unacceptable.  

“If I could talk to people who wrote this [CPC] letter … my question would be, OK, so what’s the plan? Because as of right now I have not seen any power or leader in the whole world who would say, OK, I’m taking it on myself that Putin will keep his word and he will not attack Ukraine again,” she told The Hill.  

“But what we are doing and we will continue doing is we are fighting and we will be fighting because this is our motherland and so far, nobody proved us wrong in terms of how you should act and how you should deal with Putin. You have to fight him back. There is no other way.” 

U.S. support for Ukraine’s military has been crucial to its successful counteroffensive that started in September and has kept up steady gains in the country’s eastern and southern fronts. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his top officials have often distilled their most urgent need down to one word: weapons.  

However, some groups pushing for peace say the U.S. is fueling the war by pouring weapons into Ukraine, and that it could pressure Ukraine to find a diplomatic solution by slowing or even freezing U.S. arms shipments.  

The Biden administration and Democratic leaders in Congress have held a firm line that the U.S. will support Ukraine until the war is won, and let Kyiv decide when it’s time for diplomacy. 

Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink, an anti-war advocacy group, helped lobby for the CPC letter, but said her organization wished it had gone further. She wanted lawmakers to call for freezing U.S. arms shipments and explain that the U.S. should engage in direct talks because it is responsible for “creating some of the context” that led to the war, such as the continued expansion of NATO in Russia’s backyard.  

Benjamin also cited former President John F. Kennedy’s reflection on the Cuban missile crisis, when he said nuclear powers “must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”   

Putin has stoked fears that he may resort to nuclear weapons, though on Thursday he said Russia has no plans to do so. Russian forces have occupied much of the Donbas in the Ukraine’s east and the Kremlin moved earlier this month to annex four regions — on top of Crimea, which it invaded and illegally annexed in 2014.  

Ukraine has set a basic precondition to talks that Russia leaves those territories, either voluntarily or by force, and a large majority of Ukrainians are against any territorial concessions in exchange for an end to Russian aggression.  

Medea said she expects more Ukrainians to soften their position as war casualties mount and after what is expected to be a brutal winter, with Russian missiles doing major damage to Ukraine’s energy system. And she said it’s in U.S. interests to make some concessions to Putin in order to end the bloodshed.  

“As Biden says, [Putin] needs an off ramp. Well, let’s give him one. I don’t think most Americans, if they were asked directly, do you know or care where that border in Donbas is drawn? They won’t,” she said.  

Rudik, the Ukrainian lawmaker, said the integrity of Ukraine’s border was a question of life and death, as Ukraine has invariably found torture rooms, mass graves and raped women in areas once occupied by Russia.  

“The line that we are talking about is the line between human rights and democracy and fighting for freedom, and being stripped of human rights and any ability to exist,” she said.  

“So it’s incredibly painful to hear, but I also understand that when it is so far away, you can become numb to that. But I’m not numb to the atrocities that are happening to Ukrainian people and this is why we will be fighting.” 

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) this week called the progressive letter an “olive branch to Putin,” and told The Hill Thursday it’s not even worth debating what an eventual peace deal might look like.  

“I’m not going to prognosticate on that because you don’t negotiate against yourself, OK. What you do is you change the facts on the ground, and the facts on the ground drive the negotiations,” he said. 

Auchincloss, a Marine veteran, dismissed the argument from Code Pink and others that ending the war now could save thousands of lives.  

“What’s going to ultimately be most conducive to Ukraine’s prosperity and peace and to the postwar international order that is so critical for the well-being of so many in the world is that we send this stark message to Moscow and to Beijing that might doesn’t make right. And that you need to respect the laws of diplomacy and indeed the laws of war.” 

Taylor, the former ambassador, noted that a large majority of lawmakers were still aligned with the Biden administration, despite some of the recent criticism.

“Ukrainians listen very carefully to what Americans say. They’re comforted. They’re reassured when they observe … overwhelming support for assistance and continued weapons deliveries,” he said.

However, even if the majority of U.S. lawmakers remain in sync with Biden’s strategy, the perception of growing dissent in Washington risks emboldening Putin, said Hein Goemans, a political science professor at the University of Rochester who studies war.  

“These kinds of actions of McCarthy and of the progressive group really actually support Putin in the belief that he can break apart the Western coalition, so I think it’s horribly counterproductive,” he said. “These people should answer the question: What deal do you think Putin would accept and what do you think he would do afterwards? I mean, it’s just so short-sighted.” 

Goemans posits that for wars to end, both sides need to agree on the likely outcome. And at the moment, Ukraine has every reason to believe it can beat Russia, while Putin is doubling down rather than accepting defeat.  

He added that it’s incumbent upon the U.S. to communicate to Russia that whatever it does — even if Putin turns to nuclear weapons — the West will not force Ukraine to take a peace deal on unfavorable terms.  

While lawmakers may ultimately fall in line behind the Biden administration, the divisions and political damage may not fade so quickly.  

“On the progressive side, [it] makes them look like they’re weak in the sense of not supporting freedom, not supporting the autonomy of nation states. I don’t think they’re in a good position,” said Melvyn Levitsky, a longtime U.S. diplomat who is now a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School.  

He said the progressive caucus isn’t big enough to be starting such high-stakes debates. However, a GOP majority may prove trickier for Biden to deal with, and would likely use its oversight powers to push its own priorities and strike side deals with Democrats, Levistsky added.  

“Even if the Republicans take the majority … I don’t think that there will be a push to kind of draw back,” he said. “It’s not a Republican image. But there’s also some leverage in that position as well, and they’ll have leverage in at least one house across the board.”