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Liberals urge Biden to rethink Ukraine strategy

Democratic lawmakers’ letter calls for direct U.S. talks with Russia

Ukrainian flags are seen on military tanks as they pass a checkpoint in Kyiv’s Obolon district in February. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

A group of 30 House liberals is urging President Biden to dramatically shift his strategy on the Ukraine war and pursue direct negotiations with Russia, the first time prominent members of his own party have pushed him to change his approach to Ukraine.

A letter sent by the group to the White House on Monday, first reported by The Washington Post, could create more pressure on Biden as he tries to sustain domestic support for the war effort, at a time when the region is heading into a potentially difficult winter and Republicans are threatening to cut aid to Ukraine if they retake Congress.

In the letter, the 30 Democrats led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, call on Biden to pair the unprecedented economic and military support the United States is providing Ukraine with a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a cease fire.”

The Democrats are specifically concerned that the United States is not engaging in regular dialogue with Russia as part of its effort to end a protracted war that has caused thousands of deaths and displaced 13 million people. The Biden administration has been adamant that it is up to Kyiv whether and when to negotiate with Russia, arguing that Ukrainians as a free people should decide their fate.

Many Democrats fiercely pushed back on the letter, prompting Jayapal to put out a statement later on Monday “clarifying” the position the progressives outlined in the letter, stressing that they still supported Ukraine and Biden’s commitment to ensure Ukraine is represented in any discussions about its future.

“Let me be clear: we are united as Democrats in our unequivocal commitment to supporting Ukraine in their fight for their democracy and freedom in the face of the illegal and outrageous Russian invasion,” Jayapal said. “Diplomacy is an important tool that can save lives — but it is just one tool.”

Some Russia experts say Moscow will only negotiate with the United States, a fellow superpower. The lawmakers say that opening must be seized given the war’s spreading devastation, adding, “The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks.”

The lawmakers also noted that Biden himself has said there will eventually have to be a negotiated settlement, though he has never said when.

“Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. It’s their territory. I’m not going to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do,” Biden said in June. “But it appears to me that, at some point along the line, there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement here. And what that entails, I don’t know.”

Setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine have led to increased nuclear threats by Russia, echoing Cold War events like the little-known 1983 nuclear crisis. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

The liberal Democrats note that the war’s disastrous consequences are increasingly felt far beyond Ukraine, including elevated food and gas prices in the United States and spikes in the price of wheat, fertilizer and fuel that have created global food shortages, not to mention the danger of a nuclear attack by Moscow.

White House spokesman John Kirby, responding to the lawmakers’ letter, said the administration “appreciates their very thoughtful concerns” but reiterated that the Ukrainians must be central to any diplomatic overtures.

“We’re not going to have conversations with the Russian leadership without the Ukrainians being represented,” Kirby said during a briefing with reporters. “Mr. Zelensky gets to determine — because it’s his country — what success looks like and when to negotiate.”

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.”

Russia has carried out actions that would be considered war crimes under international law, including mass graves, torture and indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians and rape, among other atrocities, according to Ukrainian and international authorities.

Pro-Ukraine voices both in the United States and in Europe often note that any settlement short of Ukraine expelling every Russian troop — and retaking Crimea — would reward a hostile power who invaded a nation unprovoked.

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 U.S. 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 Reps. Jamie Raskin (Md.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.).

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.

“There is moral and strategic peril in sitting down with Putin too early. It risks legitimizing his crimes and handing over parts of Ukraine to Russia in an agreement that Putin won’t even honor,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote on Twitter. “Sometimes, a bully must be shown the limits of his power before diplomacy can work.”

Not even every member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus joined in Monday’s call for a change in strategy. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) indicated he supported providing Ukraine enough aid and weapons to win the war outright.

“The way to end a war? Win it quickly. How is it won 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 U.S.-Russian diplomatic engagement in some time, as Defense 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.

Biden scrambles to avert cracks in pro-Ukraine coalition

In the United States, most of the challenges to date have come from the right, as some conservatives question spending billions of dollars on the faraway war. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who would be likely to become speaker if the z 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 be sitting 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, downplayed the possibility that U.S. 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.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that U.S. support for Ukraine is bipartisan and bicameral at the Crimea Platform summit in Croatia on Oct. 24. (Video: AP)

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, U.S. 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.

Earlier this month, Biden and other Group of Seven leaders issued a statement endorsing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s “readiness for a just peace,” which they said “should include” upholding the protection of territorial integrity enshrined in the United Nations Charter, “safeguarding Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in the future,” ensuring reconstruction of Ukraine, potentially with Russia paying the cost, and “pursuing accountability for Russian crimes committed during the war.”

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 percent in May to 38 percent in September.

Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 32 percent say the United States is providing too much support for the war, up from 9 percent in March.

In all, the United States has authorized upward of $60 billion in aid to Ukraine. The Senate voted to finalize 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 neighbor, 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 favor 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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