In a letter headed by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the 30 Democrats urge Biden to pair the unprecedented economic and military support the United States is giving Ukraine with a “proactive diplomatic push, redouble efforts to find a realistic framework for a truce.”
Democrats are specifically concerned that the United States is not engaging in regular dialogue with Russia as part of its efforts to end a long-running war that has caused thousands of deaths and displaced 13 million people. The Biden administration has maintained that it is up to Kiev whether and when to negotiate with Russia, arguing that Ukrainians, as a free people, should determine their own destiny.
But some Russian experts say Moscow will only negotiate with the United States, another superpower. The lawmakers say the opening must be seized given the wide devastation of war, adding: “The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both the attendant security and catastrophic and unknowable risks.”
Liberal Democrats note that the war’s disastrous consequences are increasingly being felt far beyond Ukraine, including increased food and gas prices in the United States and increases in the price of wheat, fertilizer and fuel that have created global food shortages, not to mention the danger of a nuclear attack from Moscow.
White House spokesman John Kirby, responding to the lawmakers’ letter, said the administration “appreciates their very thoughtful concerns” but reiterated that Ukrainians must be central to any diplomatic push.
“We will not have talks with the Russian leadership without the Ukrainians being represented,” Kirby said during a briefing with reporters. “Mr Zelensky must decide – because it is his country – what success looks like and when to negotiate.”
He added: “We all want to see this war end today and frankly it could end today if Mr Putin did the right thing and pulled out his troops.”
Lawmakers are at pains to separate themselves from Republicans, who also challenge Biden’s approach to Ukraine. Some conservatives now question U.S. aid to Ukraine because of its cost and in some cases offer apparent sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We are under no illusions about the difficulties involved in engaging Russia over its outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine,” the Democrats’ letter said. “If there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine, it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine.”
The letter was signed by some of the best-known and most outspoken liberal Democrats in Congress, including Reps. Jamie Raskin (Md.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.).
So far, their position remains a minority in the Democratic Party, which has overwhelmingly supported Biden’s condemnations of Russia and his spearheading of a global coalition to ensure massive support for Ukraine. Biden has framed the conflict as part of his broader view that the world is witnessing a historic confrontation between authoritarianism and democracy.
Not even all members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus joined Monday’s call for a change in strategy. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) indicated that he supported giving Ukraine enough aid and weapons to win the war outright.
“The way to end a war? Win it quickly. How to win it quickly? By giving Ukraine the weapons to defeat Russia.” Gallego wrote on Twitter on Monday.
The Liberals’ appeal for a shift in strategy comes amid some of the most significant US-Russian diplomatic engagement in some time, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, for the first time in months. The two spoke on the phone Friday and again Sunday at Shoigu’s request, Austin wrote on Twitter.
Despite Biden’s success so far in rallying support for Ukraine, he now faces the prospect of coalition cracks as Europe heads into a difficult winter, gas prices remain high at home, Putin threatens nuclear action, and both sides look to to dig in after a long, bloody haul.
Biden struggles to fend off fissures in the pro-Ukraine coalition
In the US, most of the challenges to date have come from the right, as some conservatives question spending billions of dollars on the distant war. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who is likely to become speaker if Republicans retake the House on Nov. 8 — signaled last week that a GOP-led House would oppose more aid to Ukraine.
“I think people are going to sit in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” he told Punchbowl News. “They just won’t do it.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking Monday at an international summit on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, played down the possibility that U.S. aid to Ukraine would end if Republicans take over the House.
“I think the support for Ukraine and the people of Ukraine … will not stop,” Pelosi said, adding that “the support for Ukraine is bipartisan, it’s bicameral.”
But the liberals’ letter suggests that pressure may now also begin to come from the left — albeit for different reasons — creating a political pincer movement that would make it harder for the president to blame Republicans solely for opposition to his Ukraine policy.
When asked how long the United States can be expected to pour billions into the war effort, Biden and his top aides often say, “as long as it takes.” But privately, US officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, suggesting a fundamental change in dynamics would be required if the conflict is to end in the foreseeable future.
For now, Biden’s aides have ruled out the idea of pushing or even pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table, saying it is a matter of principle that nations should determine their own destiny. They say they don’t know what the end of the war looks like or when it might happen, and insist it’s up to Kiev.
But a growing number of lawmakers and foreign policy experts are challenging that position, arguing that Russia will not take any negotiations seriously unless the United States is at the table, given its leadership of the West and its investment in Ukraine’s war effort.
“The risk of the strategy is that it has no idea of an end game,” said George Beebe, director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, adding, “It’s a recipe for continuing this war.” The Quincy Institute, which advocates for diplomatic solutions to international conflicts, is one of several groups that endorsed the liberal lawmakers’ letter after seeing an early version.
Behind the liberals’ concern is the reality that the war only seems to be escalating. Russia last month illegally annexed four Ukrainian territories, a move condemned by more than 140 countries at the United Nations. Putin has also repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons, prompting Biden to warn that the world is facing the most serious “prospect of Armageddon in 60 years.”
“President Biden said quite accurately that if current trends continue, we could be headed for the most dangerous crisis we’ve faced since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The question is, what do we do about it? said Beebe, who served as director of the CIA’s Russia analysis team and as a special adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “To simply say it’s up to Ukraine to decide is to abdicate the responsibility America’s leaders have to protect security in all of this.”
Congress has so far given the White House nearly all the money and weapons it has requested for Ukraine, but surveys suggest public support for the war effort is softening. A Pew Research poll found that the share of Americans who are extremely or very worried about a Ukrainian defeat fell from 55 percent in May to 38 percent in September.
Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 32 percent say the U.S. is providing too much support for the war, up from 9 percent in March.
In total, the United States has approved up to $60 billion in aid to Ukraine. The Senate voted to finalize more than $40 billion in new military and humanitarian aid in May, the largest-ever investment in Ukraine.
All Democrats in both chambers supported this package, but signs of a small but notable departure from the GOP were evident, as 57 of 212 House Republicans and 11 of 50 Senate Republicans voted against the aid.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said neither Russian nor Ukrainian leaders are likely to agree to negotiated compromises right now. The United States has argued that Russia blatantly violated the UN Charter by invading its neighbor, complicating any negotiations because it would place the burden on Washington to explain how any compromise respects the UN Charter.
Still, Haass, who has held various high-level diplomatic posts in the US government, said it is up to the US to define what success might look like and to outline acceptable outcomes.
“One of the norms at stake is that territory must not be acquired through the use of force. For those who favor the US pushing for a deal, the burden is on them to explain how the US is doing it in a way that is consistent with that principle,” Haass said. “At the end of the day, the United States cannot outsource its foreign policy to Ukraine or anyone else. We never will.”
The letter’s signatories indicated that they will still support Ukraine’s aid packages for now, but it remains unclear if that would continue if Biden does not pursue a diplomatic track soon.
“We agree with the administration’s perspective that it is not America’s place to pressure the government of Ukraine on sovereign decisions,” the letter said. “However, as lawmakers responsible for spending tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars in military assistance in the conflict, we believe that such involvement in this war also creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues.”