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Amid intense backlash, progressive lawmakers retract letter pressing Biden to talk with Russia about Ukraine

The letter, which asked the president to take a more aggressive strategy to end the Ukraine war, prompted swift pushback from Democrats and some Ukrainians.

The chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said Tuesday the group had retracted a letter that asked President Joe Biden to directly engage with Russia to end the war in Ukraine.

Progressives retracted the letter, which was sent Monday, after their effort to press Biden to take a more aggressive strategy on Ukraine was met with intense pushback from fellow Democrats and some Ukrainians.

In a statement announcing the retraction, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the caucus chair, blamed the release of the letter on a staff error.

“The letter was drafted several months ago, but unfortunately was released by staff without vetting," Jayapal said. "As chair of the caucus, I accept responsibility for this.

“Because of the timing, our message is being conflated by some as being equivalent to the recent statement by Republican Leader McCarthy threatening an end to aid to Ukraine if Republicans take over,” Jayapal continued, referring to a statement by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., that if Republicans win back the House majority next month, they would not write "a blank check" to the country.

“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,” she added.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who signed the letter, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that he was “glad to learn” of its withdrawal, saying the letter had led to "the conflation of growing Republican opposition to support for Ukraine" with "the polar-opposite position of dozens of Democrats like me who have passionately supported every package of military, strategic and economic assistance to the Ukrainian people and are determined to see the Ukrainian people win victory over Vladimir Putin and expel his imperialist forces from their country."

“In the eight months since Russia began its atrocity-filled and illegal war of aggression against the people of Ukraine, the Ukrainian people have given Americans not just the chance to defend the values of national sovereignty, democracy and pluralism but also great hope for the world’s future," he said.

In their letter, the lawmakers had asked Biden to pair the military and financial support the U.S. has provided to Ukraine with a “proactive diplomatic push” that involved direct talks with Russia. Republicans have threatened to cut aid to Ukraine if they retake control of the House in the midterm elections next month.

“If there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine, it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine,” the letter reads. “Such a framework would presumably include incentives to end hostilities, including some form of sanctions relief, and bring together the international community to establish security guarantees for a free and independent Ukraine that are acceptable for all parties, particularly Ukrainians.”

The progressive Democrats warned Biden that the “alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks.”

The Biden administration has resisted engaging with Putin to end the conflict, saying it is up to Kyiv to decide whether it wants to negotiate with Russia.

The letter acknowledges difficulties in engaging with Russia, criticizing its “outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine” and “illegal annexations.” The progressives then argue that the U.S. has a responsibility to “pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine.”

“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,” the letter reads.

Numerous Democrats criticized the letter, which was signed by 30 lawmakers and led by Jayapal. The backlash prompted Jayapal to release a statement “clarifying” the group’s position.

“Let me be clear: We are united as Democrats in our unequivocal commitment to supporting Ukraine in their fight for their democracy and freedom in the face of the illegal and outrageous Russian invasion, and nothing in the letter advocates for a change in that support,” Jayapal said. “Diplomacy is an important tool that can save lives — but it is just one tool. As we also made explicitly clear in our letter and will continue to make clear, we support President Biden and his administration’s commitment to nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

Some who signed the letter also appeared to distance themselves from it. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said in a statement that “only Ukrainians have a right to determine the terms by which this war ends.” Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., criticized the timing of the move and claimed in a series of tweets Monday night that the letter was written over the summer.

“First, this was written in July & I have no idea why it went out now. Bad timing. Second, it was trying to get to a cease-fire & diplomacy as others were banging war drums, not criticizing Biden. Third, I’ve supported the efforts & will continue. Over analyzed by some,” Pocan wrote in response to a Twitter user.

Another lawmaker who signed the letter, Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., said on Twitter, "Timing in diplomacy is everything," adding that she signed the letter at the end of June and that "a lot has changed since then."

"I wouldn’t sign it today," she said. "We have to continue supporting Ukraine economically and militarily to give them the leverage they need to end this war."

Inna Sovsun, a member of Ukraine's Parliament, also criticized the move, saying on Twitter that she was "deeply troubled" by it.

"You can’t negotiate with terrorists when they continue to kill," Sovsun wrote.

In response to the letter, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that although the administration “appreciates their very thoughtful concerns,” it will not hold “conversations with the Russian leadership without the Ukrainians being represented.”

“Mr. Zelenskyy gets to determine — because it’s his country — what success looks like and when to negotiate,” Kirby told reporters at a briefing. “We’d all like to see this war end today, and quite frankly it could end today if Putin did the right thing and pulled his troops out.”