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Congress Mulls Further Response to Russia’s War
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Congress Mulls Further Response to Russia’s War

Unsatisfied with the Biden administration’s measures, Republicans and Democrats say they want more.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has launched a bloody, unprovoked assault on Ukraine—threatening the lives of masses of innocent civilians, upending global security, and disrupting the international order and economy.

President Joe Biden has said repeatedly that America’s response will not include American troops on the ground in Ukraine, which is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But there is still a lot the United States and its allies can do—and are doing—to punish Putin for his violent expansionism.

Here’s a brief overview of some of the policy responses the administration has taken thus far, and the additional options lawmakers are discussing.

Sanctions

President Joe Biden announced sweeping, unprecedented sanctions on several of Russia’s largest banks on Thursday, impacting more than a combined $1 trillion in assets. Some of the sanctions mean a total freeze on Russian assets that are in American financial institutions, while others limit Russian institutions’ ability to conduct transactions in U.S. dollars. 

A slew of oligarchs close to Putin are also targets of the sanctions, along with some Belarusian banks and officials on account of their support for Russia’s invasion. The United States is also levying export controls to deprive Russia’s defense, aerospace, and maritime sectors of important technology.

The sanctions are likely to have deep impacts on the international economy, but they likely won’t convince Putin to reverse course at this point.

Republicans, who backed sanctions prior to the invasion, lamented the timing: “Sadly, deterrence after the fact is not deterrence at all,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. He joined many Republican lawmakers—and some top Democrats—in urging Biden to expand the sanctions even further. After a meeting with the president and other congressional leaders, McConnell said Biden should “ratchet the sanctions all the way up, all the way up as far as you can.”

Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, is pushing for quick passage of a GOP package of stringent sanctions that would pull more financial institutions into the fray. He expressed hope that he will be able to win Democratic cosponsors for a version of the bill.

“I just don’t believe that Putin is the kind of person you can show weakness with,” Risch told The Dispatch on a call with reporters Thursday. “This guy is not going to be deterred by some tepid response.”

Congress could eventually pass its own sanctions package, but it’s unclear what that might look like. Strategic disagreements stalled bipartisan negotiations for a sanctions package in recent weeks. Lawmakers have been on recess this week, limiting their coordination on potential legislative responses. Members may want to give Biden deference in responding to the crisis; Democrats who want to see harsher consequences for Russia could opt to use public rhetoric or conversations behind the scenes to push Biden to take further action. 

A few leading Democrats were among those unsatisfied by Thursday’s slate of sanctions. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez and Rep. Adam Schiff, who chairs the House intelligence panel, separately said Thursday they support sanctioning Putin directly, as well as ejecting Russia from a critical payment system.

“The Russian people need to be made to understand the folly of their dictator,” Schiff told reporters at the Capitol. He added that “we ought to cut off Russia from the international financing system and its ability to access Western capital.”

And Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, had some colorful suggestions: “Seize their estates. Impound their yachts. Auction their possessions. Topple their stock market. Embargo their fuel. Kick their kids out of our colleges.”

But strong measures also depend on international support. European countries with closer economic ties to Russia are wary of booting Russia from SWIFT, a Belgian money transfer system used by financial institutions around the globe. The move, which can’t be done unilaterally by the United States but could be accomplished through European Union sanctions, would choke off Russia’s flow of money from outside the country. CNN reported Wednesday that Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Cyprus, which do a substantial amount of business with Russia, are hesitant to take the step. Biden on Thursday said it remains an option, but he acknowledged it isn’t a position the rest of Europe wishes to adopt yet.

“This is going to take time,” Biden said of the sanctions on Thursday, adding that Putin “is going to test the resolve of the West to see if we will stand together.”

Financial Assistance to Ukraine

Members of Congress are also discussing an emergency funding package to send additional resources to Ukraine, both for defense and humanitarian assistance.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the American government has regularly sent defense assistance to Ukraine. According to this helpful summary from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the United States has committed more than $2.7 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014. These funds and assistance packages have included military training and equipment, both in the form of nonlethal items like body armor and vehicles, and lethal weapons such as Javelin missiles.

Since the start of Russia’s 2021 military buildup, the Biden administration has sent upwards of $600 million in defense assistance to Ukraine. Most recently, in December, the administration greenlit $200 million in security assistance, delivering weapons, medical equipment, and other items to the Ukrainian government. Members of Congress this week are signaling their willingness to approve additional funding to meet new humanitarian and defense needs due to Putin’s attack.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro said Thursday that the committee stands ready to pass assistance for both Ukraine and other European allies during the crisis. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi similarly said that Congress “will continue to fully support the people of Ukraine with humanitarian assistance and weapons to defend their country.” And South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has been telling administration officials there is broad bipartisan support for an emergency funding bill. Risch’s Republican sanctions proposal includes $500 million in new assistance, including lethal weapons, for Ukraine.

An aid bill could far exceed that amount, though: Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons told reporters Friday morning that a potential funding package could exceed $10 billion, with most of that amount going to humanitarian assistance. Coons’ comments came after he participated in a call with administration officials Thursday night.

But how the American government approaches the situation depends on how long the Ukrainian government can withstand Russia’s assault. Foreign Policy reported Thursday that administration officials are working through the legal implications and logistics of arming a Ukrainian insurgency movement in the event that Kyiv falls.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith acknowledged those dynamics on Thursday, telling CNN “it is quite possible that what we’re looking at here is a more long-term insurgency.”

“We need to be prepared to support the Ukrainian people in that effort,” Smith said.

Energy Production

Russia is one of the top oil and gas producers in the world. The war has placed Europe’s energy supply in a precarious position, and American consumers may soon feel price hikes as well. 

About 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas supplies come from Russia. Some European countries are more tightly linked, with Germany buying the most natural gas from Russia out of the European countries. As Germany’s economic minister said yesterday, 50 percent of Germany’s coal comes from Russia, 55 percent of its gas is from Russia, and 35 percent of its oil comes from Russia. Germany uses these resources to heat homes and keep industries running—so a total cutoff by Russia could inflict a lot of pain.

American lawmakers are eyeing options to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. The Biden administration also crafted its sanctions package with energy needs in mind, carving out the Russian energy sector from its economic repercussions. (Republican Sen. Pat Toomey condemned that move, saying full isolation is needed.)

The United States is coordinating with Middle Eastern countries that have energy resources, according to administration officials. Daleep Singh, the White House deputy national security adviser for international economics, told NPR this week that the administration has been working with European allies and countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to increase capacity. 

“We think we’re prepared to compensate for any shortfalls that might materialize,” Singh said.

American drilling companies and Republican lawmakers are also pushing for a more favorable regulatory environment—allowing drilling on federal land, for example—to boost production in the United States.

Democrats remain wary of that approach. Asked whether it is time to abandon climate policies that limit drilling, Schiff, the House intelligence chairman, rejected the idea.

“I don’t think the response to Putin making war on Ukraine ought to be the dismantling of our protections against climate change,” Schiff told reporters. “I do think we’re about to prompt a wholesale effort to wean Europe off of Russian oil and gas so that Russia can no longer use that as leverage against Europe.”

But in the short-term, analysts warn there is not enough capacity in other countries to fully replace the gap in Europe’s energy resources that a Russian cutoff would cause. Diversifying inputs at this point is a long-term strategy that can’t immediately ensure European homes are warm in an emergency during the rest of this winter.

Refugees

Large-scale conflict in Europe will lead to a surge in refugees seeking a safe place to live on the continent. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has already displaced more than 100,000 people, according to the United Nations refugee agency. That includes movements within Ukraine and across borders.

Refugee advocacy groups are calling for the U.S. government to grant temporary protected status (TPS) to Ukrainians who are currently in the United States. This would allow them to live and work in America legally while their homes are not safe. Menendez, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said Thursday that the war in Ukraine is “exactly the type of crisis TPS was created for.”

Read more here, from Roll Call’s Caroline Simon.

Troops in Europe

The United States is strengthening the defenses of NATO countries. Biden announced Thursday that 7,000 additional troops are being sent to Europe. 

My colleague Charlotte reported more details on the site this morning:

Earlier this week, the Defense Department deployed 800 U.S. troops and 20 Apache attack helicopters to the Baltics and 12 Apaches to Poland. After NATO allies Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia triggered Article 4—calling on allies to “consult together” when one party is threatened— Secretary of Defense Austin ordered the deployment of additional 7,000 U.S. troops to Europe on Thursday. 

“They will deploy to Germany to reassure NATO Allies, deter Russian aggression and be prepared to support a range of requirements in the region,” a senior defense official told The Dispatch. “We expect them to depart in the coming days.” In all, a total of 90,000 American soldiers are now stationed in Europe.

Analysts have also proposed additional steps like the deployment of intermediate range missiles within firing range of Russia and providing Kyiv with intelligence and cyber support. All seem to agree that letting bold aggression by Putin go unanswered would be a moral and strategic failing. 

Cyber Defense

Members of Congress are also turning their attention to the threat of Russian cyber attacks on American critical infrastructure as the conflict plays out. 

In his statement about how to respond to the war, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman pointed to three bipartisan bills to bolster American cyber defenses and clarify government roles.

And Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner said Thursday night that he remains “particularly concerned about the reports of cyber attacks and the way the international community could be at risk.” 

“There’s historical precedent to suggest these could be devastating for individuals, businesses, and entire countries,” Warner wrote.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.