GOP unites around blaming Biden for Ukraine crisis

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Mitch McConnell, Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy

Mitch McConnell, Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy

Lawmakers in both parties raced this week to condemn Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, denouncing President Vladimir Putin’s gambit as a brazen assault on international law, Ukrainian sovereignty and stability in eastern Europe.

But that’s about where the bipartisan agreement ends.

Republicans, while hammering Putin’s march toward war, also wasted no time placing the blame for the escalating hostilities squarely on the shoulders of President Biden, saying his administration cleared the way for Russia’s aggression with a series of foreign policy blunders, including the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last August.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), speaking to reporters in Kentucky on Tuesday, said Putin would not have been emboldened to send upwards of 150,000 troops to the Ukrainian border “had we not precipitously withdrawn from Afghanistan.” House GOP leaders quickly joined the attack, accusing the president of adopting a foreign policy posture that was simply too soft to discourage Putin’s bellicose designs for Ukraine.

“Sadly, President Biden consistently chose appeasement and his tough talk on Russia was never followed by strong action,” the Republican leaders, including Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Steve Scalise (La.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), said in a statement.

Across the aisle, Democrats are singing a very different tune, praising Biden and his administration for moving swiftly to unite NATO and other key allies in Europe and beyond, many of which joined the United States this week in adopting tough new economic sanctions on Moscow.

“These unified steps make clear that the United States and our allies are not bluffing in our determination to inflict serious and painful consequences on Russia in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

The divergent partisan response highlights the extent to which cooperation on Capitol Hill has dissolved in recent years, even when it comes to foreign policy matters like Russian aggression, which stood through decades of the Cold War as a unifying force across a broad spectrum of political views.

It also reflects the sharp shift within the Republican Party on matters of foreign policy since the arrival of former President Trump, whose “America First” mantra defied the muscular approach to international affairs promoted by the more hawkish GOP leaders who preceded him – but also won him legions of followers fed up with Washington’s entanglements abroad, not least the long and costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those internal GOP tensions have surfaced in glaring fashion this week, following Putin’s decision to recognize two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine as sovereign entities distinct from the democratically elected government in Kyiv.

One camp of Republican traditionalists, represented by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), have pressed hard to counter Putin’s authoritarian instincts with tough new sanctions, more defense funding for Kyiv and a robust show of U.S. military might in the allied countries of Eastern Europe.

“I want a sanctions regime from hell,” Graham said during a press briefing Tuesday in his home state.

An opposing wing, embodied by Trump and his closest followers, is pushing a much more isolationist agenda, arguing the United States has for too long suffered the costs of playing policeman to the world.

“I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way of another,” said J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author vying for a Senate seat – and Trump’s endorsement – in Ohio.

Complicating the response from the GOP, Trump this week hailed Putin’s tactics in Ukraine as “genius,” saying the Russian president’s characterization of invading troops as “peacekeepers” was a move both “smart” and “savvy.”

The praise drew the immediate condemnation from members of both parties, including Cheney, who said the 45th president’s “adulation” of Putin “aids our enemies.”

“Trump’s interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States of America,” she tweeted.

Despite the divisions, Republicans appear united in their accusations that Biden’s approach to foreign policy – both in Russia and elsewhere – has contributed to the burgeoning crisis in Ukraine, which some fear could lead to the bloodiest European conflict since World War II.

The House Republican leaders ticked off a host of areas where they say the administration’s strategy was a failed one, including Biden’s decision last year to waive sanctions on construction of the Nord Stream 2 project, an $11 billion gas pipeline between Russia and Western Europe.

“Lethal aid was slow-walked, anti-air and anti-ship capabilities were never directly provided, pre-invasion sanctions proportionate to the aggression Putin had already committed were never imposed, and sanctions on Nord Stream 2 were waived,” said the GOP leaders, whose statement was also endorsed by the leading Republicans on the House Homeland Security, Armed Services and Intelligence committees.

Other Republicans are bashing Biden on the domestic policy front, arguing that the administration’s opposition to certain new oil and gas projects around the country has given undue leverage to Putin when it comes to global energy production.

“For America to be a diplomatic power, we must be a military power. To be a military power, America has to be an economic power. It’s all connected, and President Joe Biden is undermining it all with his radical agenda to shut down American energy and embolden our enemies like Russia,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Biden on Tuesday announced a new round of sanctions on Russian financial institutions and some of the country’s wealthiest families. Other global leaders, including those representing the European Union, Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan, announced their own sanctions targeting Moscow.

In another major development, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday halted approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which has been completed but not yet certified by German regulators.

It remains unclear if Democratic leaders, who control both chambers of Congress, will take additional steps to confront the crisis legislatively, or allow the Biden administration to handle it unilaterally.

In the Senate, a bipartisan group has been working for weeks on a package to provide additional funding and military aid to Kyiv, while slapping tough new sanctions on the wealthy Russian oligarchs aligned with Putin. Those talks had stalled earlier in the month, over partisan disagreements between negotiators, but have resumed this week in response to Putin’s promised foray into Ukraine’s breakaway regions.

House leaders, on the other hand, are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“The Congress will be prepared to take further action if additional action is deemed necessary,” Hoyer said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian leaders have remained defiant, readying their military forces for an all-out Russian assault while also pleading with the United States and other Western allies for more help.

Appearing Wednesday at a press conference in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that nothing less than “the future of European security” is on the line.

“The response of the international community to this crime,” he said, “should be decisive, immediate and harsh.”

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