International

Lawmakers in both parties see limits on US help for Ukraine

The United States is confronting its own limitations as it works to support Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s bloody invasion, which is in its second week.  

The Biden administration has helped galvanize international unity, enacted rounds of sanctions and is pushing for billions in new aid as it provides both military assistance and helps alleviate a growing humanitarian crisis.  

But it’s also facing the limits of its power as it tries to balance aiding Ukraine, with Russia’s daily airstrikes dominating the world’s attention, without sparking a broader military conflict that could be catastrophic.  

The White House and lawmakers are drawing a red line: Namely, no U.S.-Russia conflict, leaving little appetite for ideas backed by Ukrainian officials like a no-fly zone.  

“To me the limits seem pretty clear. The United States is not going to deploy our own forces and personnel into battle against Russia. The United States is not going to war with Russia, period, stop,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  

Biden has long made it clear that he won’t send U.S. troops into Ukraine, a decision that has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Ukrainian officials, however, have publicly urged the United States and its allies to set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine to stop Russian aircraft from entering Ukrainian airspace.  

A Reuters poll released Friday found that 74 percent of Americans said the United States and its allies in NATO should impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine.  

But the idea has garnered pushback because enforcing it would include U.S. or NATO forces having to shoot down Russian planes that come into banned airspace, putting them in direct conflict with a nuclear power.  

“A no-fly zone is the beginning of World War III. The Russians will not observe a no-fly zone, thus you will have U.S. and Russian forces in combat,” Murphy said, adding that it would also need congressional authorization “because it would unquestionably lead to war between the United States and Russia.”  

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, added that he wouldn’t support a no-fly zone for “all the obvious reasons” and that it would “just suck us in.”  

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, added that he didn’t think a no-fly zone was currently possible because “we would end up in direct confrontation.”  

“We would be putting ourselves in an escalating position,” he added.  

That position is being backed up by U.S. allies. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that establishing a no-fly zone would lead to a broader conflict in Europe. While the issue “was mentioned” during a NATO meeting, he added that “allies agree that we should not have NATO planes operating over Ukrainian airspace or NATO troops on Ukrainian territory.” 

Instead, the United States is working on sending military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. It’s sent more than $1 billion to help Ukraine’s military over the past year and the White House requested $10 billion in assistance that lawmakers are eyeing attaching to a massive government funding bill.  

But there are limits on the ability to get military aid into Ukraine, which is now considered contested airspace. And while Russian President Vladimir Putin has faced setbacks in his invasion of Ukraine, as his military advances that will make getting supplies into Ukraine even harder.  

“I think we do have to prepare for a moment when it’s going to be very hard to get weapons into Ukraine. … That effort is likely going to be time limited,” Murphy said.  

The administration is also beefing up its support for allies in Eastern Europe — and facing calls from Congress to expedite the sale of military equipment to Poland, in particular — amid questions about if Putin could try to expand further east.  

U.S. officials and lawmakers are also questioning their understanding of the driving force behind the invasion: Putin himself, as speculation has swirled about his mental state in the wake of the invasion.  

Putin, U.S. and European officials have noted, has become increasingly isolated in recent years, questioning if it has increased his paranoia while a tightened circle of advisers provides little pushback. 

Though Biden and lawmakers largely wrote off Putin putting his nuclear forces on alert as saber-rattling, it underscores the fear that the conflict could quickly spin out of control.  

The question of if Putin, in response to international sanctions, could escalate and lash out including through cyberattacks, going beyond Ukraine or upping attacks on key Ukrainian cities has been brought up in recent Situation Room meetings, officials told The New York Times.  

Administration officials also got a question in a recent closed-door Senate briefing about the risk that Putin escalates if he’s feeling cornered, a senator told The Hill.  

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been raising a red flag over the possibility for days both through social media, in talks with reporters and TV interviews.  

Rubio, in one of a series of tweets about the Russian leader, stressed how much he believes Putin’s “risk calculus” has changed in recent years and that he would try to “avoid humiliation or the perception that he was forced to back down.”  

“It would be a catastrophic mistake to make decisions based on the … past,” Rubio added. “The sense of grievance, the suspicions, the hubris of viewing himself as Russia, the obsession with control, have all gotten worse [and] he will do things now he would have never done before.”  

Putin ramped up his efforts to silence media critical of the invasion, criminalizing “fake” reports and blocking Facebook and Twitter, tightening what information about Ukraine that his own domestic audience will see.  

The administration is under pressure to increase the economic impact on Russia for its invasion by banning Russian oil imports. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced bipartisan legislation this week and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also backed the idea.  

“I’m all for that — ban it,” Pelosi said. “Ban the oil coming from Russia.”  

Though the idea has garnered momentum in Congress, administration officials have seemed cool to the idea, while not taking it off the table, arguing that it would raise domestic energy prices.  

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that “there isn’t a strategic interest in reducing global oil supply” because of the impact it will have on American consumers.  

“We are looking at ways to reduce the import of Russian oil,” she added, “while also making sure that we are maintaining the global supply needs out there.”  

Tags Chris Murphy Jen Psaki Joe Manchin Kevin Cramer Lisa Murkowski Marco Rubio Mike Rounds Nancy Pelosi Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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