He added, “We’d all like to see this war end today, and quite frankly it could end today if Mr Putin did the right thing and pulled his troops out.”
The lawmakers are at pains to differentiate themselves from the Republicans who are also challenging Biden’s approach to Ukraine. Some conservatives are now questioning US aid to Ukraine because of its cost and, in a few cases, voicing apparent sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We are under no illusions regarding the difficulties involved in engaging Russia given its outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine,” the Democrats’ letter states. “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 Jamie Raskin, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar.
For now, their position remains a minority in the Democratic Party, which has overwhelmingly supported Biden’s denunciations of Russia and his spearheading of a global coalition to funnel massive support to 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 every member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus joined in Monday’s call for a change in strategy. Ruben Gallego indicated he supported providing Ukraine enough aid and weapons to win the war outright.
The liberals’ appeal for a shift in strategy comes amid some of the most significant US-Russian diplomatic engagement in some time, as Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin recently talked with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, for the first time in months. The two spoke by phone Friday and again on 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 cracks in the coalition as Europe heads into a difficult winter, gas prices remain high at home, Putin threatens nuclear actions and both sides appear to be digging in for the long, bloody haul.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking Monday at an international summit on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, downplayed the possibility that US aid to Ukraine would end if Republicans take the House.
“I believe that the support for Ukraine and the people of Ukraine . . . will not stop,” Pelosi said, adding that “support for Ukraine is bipartisan, it is bicameral.”
But the liberals’ letter suggests pressure may now start coming from the left as well – albeit for different reasons – creating a political pincer movement that would make it harder for the president to blame opposition to his Ukraine policy solely on Republicans.
When asked how long the United States can be expected to pour billions into the war effort, Biden and his top aides frequently 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 dynamic 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 nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table, saying it is a matter of principle that nations get to decide their own fate. They say they do not know what the end of the war looks like or when it might happen, insisting that it is up to Kyiv.
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 it has no conception of an endgame,” 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 faces the most serious “prospect of Armageddon in 60 years.”
“President Biden said quite accurately that if present trends continue, we could be headed toward the most dangerous crisis we’ve faced since the Cuban missile crisis. The question then is, what do we do about that?” said Beebe, who served as director of the CIA’s Russia analysis team and as special adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “Simply saying it’s up to Ukraine to decide is abdicating the responsibility America’s leaders have to safeguard the security in all of this.”
Congress so far has provided the White House with nearly all the money and weapons it has requested for Ukraine, but surveys suggest that public support for the war effort is softening. A Pew Research poll found that the share of Americans who are extremely or very concerned about a Ukrainian defeat fell from 55 per cent in May to 38 per cent in September.
Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 32 per cent say the United States is providing too much support for the war, up from 9 per cent in March.
In all, the United States has authorised upward of $US60 billion ($94.8 billion) in aid to Ukraine. The Senate voted to finalise more than $40 billion in new military and humanitarian assistance in May, the largest investment in Ukraine thus far.
All Democrats in both chambers supported that package, but signs of a small but notable GOP dissent 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 that neither Russian nor Ukrainian leaders are likely to agree to negotiated compromises right now. The United States has argued that Russia flagrantly violated the United Nations charter by invading its neighbour, which complicates any negotiations because it would put the burden on Washington to explain how any compromise respects the U.N. charter.
Still, Haass, who has held various high-level diplomatic positions in the U.S. government, said it is up to the United States to define what success could look like and to outline acceptable outcomes.
“One of the norms at stake is that territory is not to be acquired through the use of force. For those who favour the United States pushing for a deal, the burden is on them to explain how does the United States do that in a way that’s consistent with that principle,” Haass said. “At the end of the day, the United States cannot subcontract out its foreign policy to Ukraine or anybody else. We never do that.”
The letter’s signatories indicated that for now, they will still support Ukraine aid packages, but it remains unclear whether that would continue if Biden does not soon pursue a diplomatic track.
“We agree with the administration’s perspective that it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions,” the letter says. “But as legislators responsible for the expenditure of tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in military assistance in the conflict, we believe such involvement in this war also creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues.”
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