Lawmakers emerge from Russia-Ukraine briefings bracing for invasion

Lawmakers left classified briefings on Russia-Ukraine tensions Thursday warning of the potential for an imminent invasion by Moscow, as the U.S. weighs how to respond to an escalating situation that threatens to destabilize Europe. 

Both the House and Senate were given classified briefings led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the ongoing tensions between the two nations as the Biden administration coordinates with allies to confront the threat of an invasion. 

“This is the most significant threat in Europe since 1945. It’s just that simple,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters after exiting the briefing, calling a Russian invasion a “near certainty.”

“If we now live in an era where someone can move into a country and just take it over and claim it as their own, I don’t think it’s going to stop at Ukraine,” he continued. “I think you’ll see this in Asia. I think you’ll see that potentially in other countries in Europe, many of whom complained that some treaty 100 years ago screwed them — and we’re going to be living in a very different era.” 

The meetings — given to each chamber separately — come as Russia has refused to draw down its more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, drawing criticism from the U.S. that Moscow’s engagement in diplomatic talks is disingenuous. 

“We are working to pursue diplomacy in every possible venue,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Monday. “But we also know that diplomacy will not succeed in an atmosphere of threat and military escalation.”  

Moscow denies it has plans to invade Ukraine, saying it is taking a defensive posture and demanding a guarantee from NATO that Kyiv is never admitted to the alliance.  

As lawmakers were being briefed on the conflict, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters that the administration believes the Kremlin will produce a very graphic video depicting an attack on Russians in order to justify an invasion. 

While lawmakers largely praised Biden’s response to the conflict, many reiterated the need for the U.S. to enact punishing sanctions ahead of an incursion.   

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) said the Senate has wasted precious time as it crafts a sanctions package.

“The sanction package hasn’t been resolved but I’m for sanctions yesterday to demonstrate our resolve. No more words, No more tough talk. Resolve,” he told reporters.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the minority whip, also denounced the Democratic strategy of threatening tougher sanctions on Russia, but only after an invasion — a strategy amplified by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) earlier in the day. 

“Doing something after the fact is the opposite of deterrence,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.). 

But Democrats defended both Biden and Pelosi’s sanctions’ strategy, arguing that the threat of new restrictions is as effective as adopting them immediately.

“You have your finger on the trigger, and so they know what’s coming if they invade,” said one Democratic lawmaker who spoke anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic. “That’s the deterrence.” 

The Pentagon has deployed 3,000 troops to Germany, Poland and Romania to help those allies, and has put an additional 8,500 troops on ‘heightened alert’ to deploy, largely if NATO activates its response force — which it has not done. 

While the administration has repeatedly said there are no plans to send American forces into Ukraine, lawmakers said the U.S. was acting strategically by deploying forces to Eastern Europe.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters that doing so sends a message to Putin that an invasion of Ukraine would solicit a strong NATO response.

“We have an interest in making sure if Putin invades, it does not spill over,” he said. “We also want to make clear to Putin that exactly what he doesn’t want — increase U.S. troop presence on his Western flank — will occur if the incursion moves forward.” 

“So I think it’s the right move first, to protect NATO but also to send a disincentive signal to Putin,” he continued. 

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stressed that as the U.S. boosts its troop presence in the region, American forces must direct conflict with Russian forces. 

“The aggressor here is Russia. The United States and NATO are not the aggressors here, we are not in an offensive position,” Risch said. “It is important that we don’t engage U.S. forces against Russian forces. And there is no plan to do that. Indeed, plans are just the opposite of that.” 

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke at a Washington Post Live event after the briefing, in which he praised the Biden administration as taking the right steps in supporting allies and standing up to Russia. 

“Secretary Blinken and other members of the administration have done a dutiful job negotiating with the Russians, but also a heroic job linking with our allies,” he said.  

Romney said that Biden sending troops to Europe is not a signal of the U.S. preparing to open conflict with Russia, but as a means of reinforcing America’s commitment to its allies.

“It says to our allies, we care. We are there for you. We are there for NATO. This is important to us. That’s what it does. It also sends a message to Russia, that we are united as NATO and that we will stand with our NATO allies.”

Still, he echoed concern that the threat of war is “is not overstated, and that we should be prepared in the event that there is an invasion.”

All of this comes as the Senate races to put together a sweeping sanctions package against Russia ahead of a potential military incursion. Risch told The Hill on Thursday that he was optimistic that bipartisan talks would yield an announcement “pretty soon” on an agreement for a sanctions package.  

Proposals for the package are said to include sanctions that can immediately be imposed on Russia when the bill becomes law, while also giving the president authority on a range of other economic measures if Russia further invades Ukraine. 

“These are sanctions for malign actions that Russia and malign actors have already taken,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC on Thursday.  

“I think we’re very close, and I look forward to being able to join with Senator Risch, the Ranking Member, to let everybody know what we were able to accomplish.”

Laura Kelly contributed.

Tags Antony Blinken Bob Menendez Chris Murphy Jim Risch John Kirby Ken Buck Linda Thomas-Greenfield Lloyd Austin Marco Rubio Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Steve Scalise

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