WASHINGTON — A group of progressive House Democrats urged President Joe Biden on Monday to pursue negotiations with Russia to try to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine, marking the first sign of divergence within the party on the administration’s strategy.
The 30 Democrats, led by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, said in a letter to Biden that it was in the interest of the U.S. and Ukraine to avert an extended conflict that would increase the risk of a dangerous escalation.
But hours later, after the letter drew criticism from other Democrats, Jayapal issued a statement clarifying that the group supported Biden’s strategy.
“The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks,” the group, which included Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Ro Khanna of California, wrote in the letter. “We urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a cease-fire.”
With the conflict dragging on and European nations facing increasing hardship from the cutoff of Russian energy supplies, the Kremlin will be watching closely for any wavering in the U.S. and among NATO members that have been supplying Ukraine’s military.
The progressives indicated that they were not backing away from support for Ukraine. In the follow-up statement, Jayapal, of Washington State, said the group wasn’t backing away from support for Ukraine or from Biden’s approach, calling diplomacy “just one tool.”
“Let me be clear,” Jayapal said, “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.”
The White House on Monday said that its position was that there would be no talks with Russia without a decision by Ukraine to pursue them.
“It’s clear Mr. Putin is in no mood to negotiate,” John Kirby, a spokesman for Biden’s National Security Council, said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We’re not going to have conversations with Russian leadership without the Ukrainians being represented.”
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “gets to determine when he thinks that’s the right time” for negotiations, Kirby said.
Some Democrats took a dim view of the call for negotiations. Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona tweeted in response to the progressives’ letter that the way to end a war is, “Win it quickly. How is it won quickly? By giving Ukraine the weapons to defeat Russia.”
In the original letter, the representatives pointed out the continuing bipartisan support for aiding Ukraine in its campaign to repel the Russian invasion, but suggested that a negotiation process could include sanctions relief for Russia and security guarantees for Ukraine.
Biden’s approach to Ukraine will be tested if Republicans win control of the House in next month’s elections. Some conservative GOP House lawmakers such as Florida’s Matt Gaetz have called for curtailing aid to Ukraine. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said last week that Republicans would demand tighter oversight of aid to Ukraine if they win the majority.
Congress enacted $12 billion in new aid to Ukraine in September and the Biden administration is widely expected to request more aid for the country in a December spending bill. The letter combined with the statements from the GOP could signal such a request will face difficulties being met.
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