The U.S. is maintaining its pressure on Russia as concerns rise regarding a potential further invasion of Ukraine, but top officials on the left and right appear to be at odds over the most appropriate strategy to deter the Kremlin from further advancing on Kyiv.
The U.S. and its allies have warned for weeks that Russia is inching closer to deploying a military incursion against Ukraine as tensions between the two countries reach their highest point in years. Moscow has denied having plans to invade Ukraine despite amassing more than 100,000 troops near its border.
Top U.S. and Russian officials are engaging in diplomatic talks in an effort to ease tensions, but no breakthroughs have been reached. The U.S. has rejected Moscow’s top demands — one of which is that Ukraine be barred from joining NATO — leaving the two sides embroiled in a stalemate.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, fresh off a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, emphasized on Sunday that a diplomatic path to ease tensions between Moscow and Kyiv is “preferable,” but he told CNN’s “State of the Union” that a “swift, a severe and a united response from us and from Europe” would follow if “a single additional Russian force goes into Ukraine in an aggressive way.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sounded a similar note, telling the network that she hopes diplomacy can prevent the U.S. from moving forward with actions to deter Russia from moving further in on Ukraine.
But with diplomacy stalling and a Russian invasion of Ukraine becoming more imminent, top U.S. figures appear to be at odds regarding the best strategy moving forward.
Ernst on Sunday called on the U.S. to impose sanctions on Russia now, telling CNN that penalties need to be enforced before an invasion occurs and lives are lost. Ernst suggested that Russia could be expelled from the SWIFT banking system, a financial messaging service that allows banks to relay information regarding global transactions.
Blinken, however, is starkly opposed to such a move, telling CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the U.S. would “lose the deterrent effect” if it imposes penalties on Moscow before a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The secretary of State said that “the most important thing” the U.S. can do is use sanctions as a deterrent.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed Blinken, telling ABC’s “This Week” that the “strongest sanctions” should be held as a deterrent to stop Putin from “taking the last step of invading Ukraine.”
He did, however, suggest that the U.S. apply some sanctions now, arguing that such penalties should come from a bipartisan bill on Capitol Hill. Coons is a co-sponsor of the Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act of 2022, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), which would impose mandatory sanctions on a variety of Russian entities if Moscow ramps up aggression against Ukraine.
The U.S. on Thursday imposed sanctions on four current and former Ukrainian officials who are believed to be working to assist Russia’s influence effort in Ukraine.
Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rejected Blinken’s stance against immediate sanctions, telling CBS on Sunday that he does not believe imposing sanctions now would give up a point of deterrence.
McCaul said said Putin does not appear to be “changing his course of action,” adding that “we can always remove the sanctions if it deters Putin’s bad behavior, but if you reward that and there are no consequences, it’s going to continue.”
President Biden caused a stir last week when he suggested that Russia would face smaller consequences for launching a “minor” attack against Ukraine, which the administration quickly walked back in a number of statements and interviews. The Biden administration has since emphasized that any incursion will be met with severe consequences.
The comment, however, appeared to catch the attention of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who wrote on Twitter, “There are no minor incursions.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told Greta Van Susteren in an interview that aired on Sunday that “there was distress among Democrats and Republicans” after Biden’s comment but noted that “it was a misstatement of American policy.”
For the path ahead, the U.S. appears poised to continue pushing for diplomacy despite an apparent stalemate and a new report that Russia is bolstering its plans for an offensive, including a British claim that Moscow is planning to install a pro-Russian leader in the Ukrainian government. Russia has dismissed that assertion.
Pressed by CBS’s Margaret Brennan on how a path toward diplomacy could be reached when Russia’s demands have been deemed non-starters, Blinken said the two sides will continue sharing ideas with hope that a breakthrough will be achieved.
“We are now sharing our own ideas as well as our own deep concerns. And we’ll see if in the mix there, there are things that we can do again on a reciprocal basis that would actually advance collective security in a way that answers some of what we’re hearing and Russia answering a lot of what they’re hearing from us,” the secretary of State said.