Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war hawks must be dancing on Red Square.
Putin’s calculation that Western resolve to help the victims of his aggression in Ukraine would eventually dissipate has been confirmed at the perfect moment for the Kremlin leader by influential factions of both parties in the U.S. House of Representatives.
It is hard to imagine what 30 members of the Progressive Democratic Caucus thought would be achieved by pulling the rug out from under the unified strategy and leadership of NATO, the European Union, the Group of Seven wealthy democracies and the Biden administration.
A letter sent to the White House by U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle) on Monday and signed months ago by less than a third of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party pushes President Joe Biden to urge Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to capitulate to Putin’s call to “negotiate” an end to the war aimed at destroying what Russia cannot conquer.
Putin’s demand for huge swaths of Ukrainian territory as the price for peace is recognized by the Kyiv government and its Western allies as a tactic to force Zelensky to give the Russian dictator a down payment in war spoils and the chance to pause and rearm his stumbling offensive now that Ukraine has gained the momentum.
The Progressives’ letter, quickly withdrawn Tuesday amid a hailstorm of criticism, signals to the Kremlin that Americans are tiring of the war’s impact on household budgets partly from military aid to Ukrainians who are losing their lives by the tens of thousands to stop Putin’s quest for a vast Russian empire. The liberals’ nod to appeasement followed a similar message sent last week by House Republicans who blamed U.S. support for Ukraine for causing inflation, especially gas prices spiking because Russia has cut off supplies to countries helping Ukraine defend itself.
Caving to Putin’s nuclear blackmail by pressuring Zelensky to reward the Kremlin with illegally seized Ukrainian land will do nothing to ease global economic crises caused by Putin’s war and COVID-era supply-chain disruptions. Jayapal’s letter speaks from either ignorance about the historical failure of appeasement to deter a megalomaniac or willful distortion of the blatant reality of a Kremlin leader who sees compromise as weakness and will exploit it.
“Given the destruction created by this war for Ukraine and the world, as well as the risk of catastrophic escalation, we also believe it is in the interests of Ukraine, the United States, and the world to avoid a prolonged conflict,” the Progressives’ letter stated after praising Biden for refraining from direct military engagement with Russia. “For this reason, we urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.”
The alternative to diplomacy, the letter argued, “is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks.”
The Progressives said they shared Biden’s position that nothing should be forced on Ukraine by outside powers. “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, including direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement.”
Replete with assumptions that Putin would be an honest broker, the letter concluded by urging Biden “to make vigorous diplomatic efforts in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire, engage in direct talks with Russia … (and) seek a rapid end to the conflict and reiterate this goal as America’s chief priority.”
The letter blasted a hole in the newly restored image of the United States as a reliable partner in Western and global economic and security alliances. During four years of former President Donald Trump’s castigating America’s security partners as freeloaders on U.S. troops and defense investments, Europeans, including 14 member states dominated by Kremlin Communists until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, grew to mistrust Washington’s commitment to the core NATO principle that an attack on any member state demands a military response by all.
Jayapal withdrew the Progressives’ letter Tuesday, after a hailstorm of criticism from other Democrats. She apologized for the appeal to the White House drafted months ago that was “released by staff without vetting” on Monday. Several members of her caucus said they have changed their minds since signing on to it in the spring and summer before Ukrainian forces turned the tide against the Russian invaders in critical areas of the east and south.
It seems unfathomable that Jayapal or others in the 100-strong Progressive wing of the party haven’t heeded Putin’s boldly stated objectives in waging war. He seeks the annihilation of Ukraine’s freely elected government and its replacement with Russian leadership to force what he says is Russian territory back into the fallen empire of the Soviet Union.
For years Putin has spoken of the need to liberate the Ukrainian nation of 44 million from the predatory influence of the United States and NATO and from what the Kremlin casts as a neo-Nazi government in Kyiv perverting the true Russian nature of a rebel territory with no right to independence. In July 2021, seven months before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, Putin published a rambling and revealing treatise on the historic unity of Russians and Ukrainians, arguing that they are one people and as such the latter have no right to exist as a separate nation.
Analysts of U.S. domestic politics speculate that Jayapal’s move to undermine Biden’s support for Ukraine was a counterpoint to the announcement last week by minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that if Republicans win control of the House in next month’s midterm elections that his majority would likely oppose more aid to Ukraine.
“The proximity of these statements created the unfortunate appearance that Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted for every package of military, strategic, and economic assistance to the Ukrainian people, are somehow aligned with Republicans who seek to pull the plug on American support for President Zelensky and the Ukrainian forces,” Jayapal said in a failed attempt to distance herself from the message her caucus’s letter sent to Biden and, even if unintentionally, as the gift of encouragement to the Kremlin.
Putin managed to keep anti-war sentiment among the Russian people under control in the first months after the invasion by arresting thousands of protesters and criminalizing criticism of the war, which he euphemizes as a “special military operation.” His announcement last month that he was mobilizing 300,000 fresh recruits to invigorate the flagging offensive spurred a new wave of protests and an intensified crackdown on those defying the ban on dissent. More than 300,000 men fearing they would be sent as cannon fodder in Ukraine fled Russia through Finland and the Caucasus states, triggering a brutal operation that has security officers grabbing conscription dodgers off the streets.
The hints by House lawmakers from both parties that support for Ukraine is now a debatable issue – even though withdrawn by the Democrats – is an unmistakable signal to Putin that Americans are tiring of the war’s influence on their cost of living. With U.S. pollsters forecasting a Republican takeover of the House next year, Putin can now confidently ratchet up the pressure on Ukraine to capitulate to his terms for a ceasefire.
Zelensky’s heroic leadership of his country throughout this existential crisis has been made possible by strong support in weapons and refugee aid from the European countries suffering through an energy crisis far more dire than Americans’ high gasoline prices.
If U.S. lawmakers cut back aid to the underdog Ukrainian fighters now on the advance, that could spread to countries like Germany and Italy where Putin’s manipulation of oil supplies confronts those populations with grave shortages of gas and electricity to heat their homes through the winter. Any scaling back of Western support for Ukraine’s valiant resistance would likely demoralize those fighting against Putin’s genocidal war for a Greater Russia.
“There is moral and strategic peril in sitting down with Putin too early,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted in the aftermath of the progressives’ blunder. “It risks legitimizing his crimes and handing over parts of Ukraine to Russia in an agreement that Putin won’t even honor. Sometimes, a bully must be shown the limits of his power before diplomacy can work.”
It may be overstating the impact of the Progressives’ ill-timed and widely condemned call on Biden to give peace on Putin’s terms a chance. But poorly-conceived political ploys aimed at amassing power in Washington’s dysfunctional and narrow-thinking legislative ranks run the risk of appeasing the aggressor in the Kremlin. It would be best for U.S. politicians to keep in mind that Putin’s ultimate objective is not simply to annex Ukraine to Russia but the circle of former Soviet republics and allied states as well – all NATO members whose invasion would instigate the U.S. alliance coming to their rescue.
Cutting aid to Ukraine, even insincerely raising the issue for domestic political advantage, risks drawing the United States into a wider and more costly war or ceding the young democracies of the Baltic states and Eastern Europe to the repressions of the Russian autocracy and permanently establishing the United States as an unreliable ally.