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Frustrated lawmakers confront limits of U.S. aid to Ukraine

Sanctions could take months to impose lasting damage, and Biden has ruled out a lawmaker-backed plan to send fighter jets to Ukraine, saying it would spark "World War III."
A man stands on the balcony of a destroyed residential building in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 15, 2022.
A man stands on the balcony of a destroyed residential building Tuesday in Kyiv, Ukraine.Andre Luis Alves / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Frustrated and emotional lawmakers concede there is little they can do to immediately stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unrelenting assault on Ukraine.

Members of Congress now find themselves grappling with the limits of U.S. and allied efforts to halt a bloody war in Eastern Europe, where President Joe Biden and NATO have said they don’t want to get involved militarily.

Even with the numerous steps taken by the U.S. — from sanctions on Putin's inner circle to aid for Ukraine — many on Capitol Hill feel that such measures can do only so much.

“It is a complex set of feelings. I mean, obviously, it’s very emotional,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “The combined effect of what we are doing is having dramatic, punitive effects on Russia, but it’s not stopping Putin from doing this … and that is obviously tragic.”

In terms of military action, a plan championed by lawmakers to send Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine is going nowhere after Biden warned that doing so would provoke Russia and spark “World War III.”

Biden also has dismissed a request from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who will address Congress virtually on Wednesday, for the U.S. and NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over his war-ravaged country.

“The commander-in-chief makes the decisions as to the allocation of resources on the battlefield,” said Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Elections have consequences. Americans elected him president of the United States. It is what it is.”

A private home is damaged by shelling in the Osokorky district in southeastern Kyiv on March 15, 2022.
A home is damaged by shelling Tuesday in the Osokorky district in southeastern Kyiv.Genya Savilov / AFP - Getty Images

Kaine and other senators said it’s not as if Congress has been sitting on its hands as scores of Russian missile strikes have killed civilians — including women and children — and forced nearly 3 million refugees to flee into neighboring countries.

Biden on Tuesday signed into law a massive spending package, which Congress passed last week, that includes $13.6 billion in much-needed military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. And lawmakers successfully pressured Biden to impose a ban on Russian oil imports and other sanctions that are starting to cripple Russia’s financial systems and economy.

Russia’s ruble is in free fall — the country could default on its foreign debt within days — and its interest rates are skyrocketing. And yet Moscow's shelling of civilian populations shows no sign of subsiding.

During a trip to Poland over the weekend, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he and colleagues spoke to Ukrainian refugees who said they were grateful for U.S. assistance. But he stressed that time is running out to get lethal weapons into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers defending Kyiv and other major cities.

“Emotions range from anger to depression, but in the midst of it, a lot of appreciation for America,” Portman said Tuesday of the refugees he encountered. “We should do more, and we should do it more quickly. There is no time to waste. This is not a matter of months. This is a matter of days and maybe weeks.

“We’re at a critical juncture right now. If we don’t provide the military assistance they need, then it’d be too late.”

A resident stands in his apartment damaged by shelling in Kyiv on March 15, 2022.
A man stands in his apartment damaged by shelling in Kyiv on Tuesday.Fadel Senna / AFP - Getty Images

Still, senators appeared to be in no hurry to pass legislation that would revoke Russia’s favored-nation trade status, which would allow the U.S. and other countries to impose steep tariffs on Russian imports. The House plans to take up the bill this week; the Senate isn’t expected to act until next week at the earliest.

While lawmakers can’t compel Putin to quickly end the violence, they argue that the war will be a long slog and that economic sanctions ultimately could lead to the collapse of Russia's economy, military and government.

“People are making runs on banks and ATMs to try to get what they can. That’s not a protest, but it is a protest, right? And people are not going to just tolerate that forever,” Kaine said.

“I believe that what the West is doing together is going to cause Putin’s defeat, and maybe not just defeat in Ukraine but his ultimate defeat,” he added. “I believe that that will happen, but that’s going to take some time.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the “Gang of Eight” lawmakers who receive the most sensitive classified intelligence briefings, agreed that the Kremlin can’t sustain a drawn-out and costly war even as its bombs continue to flatten cities and terrorize civilians.

“Russia’s military plan is that they’re going to shell the hell out of the cities until they feel like they have a battlefield advantage. This allows them at a minimum to negotiate whatever it is Putin wants his endgame to look like,” Rubio said. But he added that “Russia is paying a tremendous cost” and that “these costs are degrading their capabilities.”

Other senators aren’t so certain the sanctions will do anything to stop Putin’s march. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who was among a group of lawmakers who met with Zelenskyy last summer, said Putin has already proven he will go to any length to topple the Ukrainian president and government.

“Sanctions are going to take months, you know, and we put sanctions on in 2014 — that didn’t work,” Tuberville said in an interview Tuesday. “You would hope some of it would take hold earlier. But the problem is Putin’s got to win. He’s at the point now there’s no backing out. He’s all in. He's cornered.”

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., a member of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, said he agrees with Biden that “there’s no willingness to go forward with directly confronting Russians” and sending U.S. troops into harm's way.

But Boozman said he and other lawmakers are getting pressure from constituents to do more to help the Ukrainians, including a much-debated plan to have Poland, a NATO ally, send MiG-29s to Ukraine and then have the U.S. transfer American F-16 jets to shore up Poland’s air defenses.

“I support the MiG planes. I think that that’s certainly within bounds. I think we should be doing that right now,” Boozman said, adding that he saw little distinction between the planes and the Javelin anti-tank missiles the U.S. has already sent to Ukraine. The Javelins are “wreaking havoc against the Russians,” he said. “I really don’t see a lot of difference between that and a MiG.”

On Sunday, one of Boozman’s constituents, the award-winning filmmaker and journalist Brent Renaud, was killed by Russian forces in Ukraine.

“This is hitting very, very personally,” Boozman said. “So [my constituents’] message to me is for us to do whatever it takes to support the people of Ukraine.”