Immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the political debate in the U.S. was a free-for-all. Democrats and some Republicans aligned behind President Biden exhibiting what was once considered a traditional show of unity in a crisis. Other Republicans blasted Biden as weak and insufficiently tough on Russia. In perhaps the strangest twist, still other Republicans, including Donald Trump, seemed to sympathize with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
Now, Republican Party leaders are trying to rein it in.
Mike Pence on Friday will declare that there “is no room in this party for apologists for Putin,” according to excerpts from a speech that the former vice president will deliver at a Republican National Committee retreat. The remarks could be aimed at Trump, who has called Putin “very savvy” and labeled his aggression as “genius,” and it would be the second time in recent weeks that Pence has rebuked the former president and possible rival for the White House.
Other Republicans have tried to focus the party’s criticism of Biden, tying the crisis to gasoline prices that have climbed to a national average of nearly $4 a gallon.
Top Republican senators have hammered Biden all week, criticizing the limits his administration placed on oil and gas leases and its cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. On Friday, 25 Republican governors joined in, calling on Biden to “reverse his policies and restore America’s energy independence.”
“We can protect our national energy security and sell to our friends rather than buy from our enemies — specifically Russia,” the governors’ statement said. “People in our states cannot afford another spike at the gas pump, and our allies cannot afford to be held hostage by Putin’s tyranny and aggression.”
Although some aspects of the Republican critique crumble upon closer inspection, the newly coordinated message is unifying the right after the fractious intramural debate over Putin. And with inflation soaring, linking Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine to his domestic woes could prove to be a potent argument with voters in the fall.
That might help Republicans return to power next year. The danger, foreign policy experts say, is that a war in the heart of Europe, with vast geopolitical implications, becomes yet another partisan squabble.
“It’s like foreign policy is a blank screen on which we project all our internal divides,” said Brian Katulis, co-editor of The Liberal Patriot, a website focused on the politics of national security. “As if the Ukrainians are just props in our own political story.”
The oil and gas debate
In public and private, former Trump administration officials have lent their advice to Republicans in Washington. During a closed-door meeting of several dozen House conservatives this week, Robert O’Brien, a former national security adviser, fielded questions for an hour as he urged lawmakers to support more aggressive measures against Russia.
One factor driving the concern, multiple Republican aides said, was the voices of Ukrainians themselves.
“Oil prices are soaring, and in a weird way Russia is benefiting from its own invasion,” Maryan Zablotskyy, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, told us. “Their government should be deprived of all revenue.”
In focusing on Russian oil, Republicans are aggravating a point of Democratic division. The White House opposes barring imports of Russian oil and gas supplies to the U.S., but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she’s “all for it. Ban it.”
Seven Democrats support a new energy sanctions bill promoted by Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But leading Democrats — notably, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate majority leader — have not yet signed on.
Republicans are threatening to force the bill to the floor next week unless Schumer relents.
He might have little choice. Other influential Democrats have signaled their support. “It just infuriates me to think that we are dependent on Russian gas and oil,” Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois told CNN on Thursday. On Friday, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia came out in favor of a ban, his office said.
The case for more sanctions
Republicans are pushing for even more aggressive moves, such as so-called secondary sanctions on foreign institutions that do business with Russia, in addition to cutting off the Kremlin’s sources of hard currency from sales of commodities. And they are calling for a few-holds-barred defense of Ukraine, even as administration officials signal pessimism about Kyiv’s ability to withstand a Russian onslaught.
In his remarks on Friday, Pence is expected to call on Biden to “sanction all financial institutions in Russia.”
The idea of such sanctions, as Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, argued last week, would be to “force the world to choose between doing business with Russia or the United States.”
“We’re sort of late in the game here,” said Rich Goldberg, a former National Security Council director under Trump and a leading architect of the Iran sanctions effort as a longtime congressional aide. “Every hour that was lost is time we never get back.”
The Biden defense
Biden administration officials say they’ve been aggressive — and they point to an unprecedented series of steps the U.S. and its allies have taken in a matter of days.
In retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine, Western countries have hit Russia with a long list of penalties and restrictions. They’ve battered the Russian economy and punished its currency, the ruble. They’ve prohibited Russia from importing key technology. They’re even going after the yachts of businessmen in Putin’s circle.
“We are ensuring that this war of choice will be a strategic failure for Vladimir Putin,” said a senior administration official who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
White House officials liken the sanctions to a boa constrictor suffocating Russia’s economy, with pressure increasing in response to the Kremlin’s escalatory moves.
“They’re not intended to max out at the beginning,” said Jen Psaki, the White House Press secretary. “They’re long-lasting and sustainable, and they’re intended to squeeze.”
The administration has held back on some measures so that it can ratchet up pressure on Moscow as necessary, but has resisted oil and gas sanctions so far.
“Obviously, there are areas we can go to have even further impact,” the senior administration official said. “All options remain on the table.”
The problem the White House faces, current and former officials say, is one of timing. How long can Ukraine hang on? Can the sanctions affect Putin’s calculations quickly enough — if at all — to make a difference on the battlefield? And how can the administration juggle all this in the middle of a heated election season, with consumer prices rising at the fastest pace in 40 years?
“Look, there’s still a reasonable possibility that there’s a bank run and the entire Russian economy collapses next Wednesday,” said Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury Department official. “But the pace of sanctions is not as fast as the pace of war.”
What to read
A State of the Union moment
On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Sarahbeth Maney told us about capturing the image above:
“This was my first time photographing the State of the Union so I was unsure what to expect, but I knew to keep my eye on the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, and the special guests sitting in her area.
When I leaned over the balcony to see who the guests were, the first person I noticed was 13-year-old Joshua Davis. He stood out to me because he was the only kid among a group of adults. My first thought was, ‘Wow, this kid is really brave — especially to be sitting in between the first lady and the second gentleman.’
I snapped this photo during the part of President Biden’s speech when he announced that it had been Joshua’s birthday the day before, affectionately calling him “buddy.” He continued his speech to say, “for Joshua, and for the 200,000 other young people with Type 1 diabetes, let’s cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month so everyone can afford it.”
I think the emotion on everyone’s faces and the extension of the first lady’s hand reaching out to embrace Joshua captures how memorable this day will be for him.”
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.
— Blake & Leah
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