Heather Cox Richardson
Today Russian president Vladimir Putin said he’s recognizing the full territories claimed by the upstart governments of Ukrainian eastern provinces Luhansk and Donetsk. Josh Kovensky of Talking Points Memo points out that since those governments only control about a third and a half of the territory, respectively, in those provinces, this recognition would mean that Ukraine is occupying land that belongs to those breakaway regions.
Today, the European Union led the way on announcing sanctions against members of Russia’s leadership, reinforcing the idea of international cooperation against Putin. The E.U.’s 27 member states unanimously agreed to freeze the assets and ban the visas of 351 members of the Duma, the Russian government’s lower house of parliament, who backed recognition of the rogue governments within Ukraine.
The U.K. followed suit, sanctioning three "high net worth individuals" in Russia and five major Russian banks.
Germany halted certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a project worth up to $15 billion to Russia.
In a speech this afternoon, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. has imposed sanctions on two Russian banks, one of which is associated with the Russian military, and five individuals, including one who is in charge of VK, Russia’s largest social media network, and one that is listed on the London Stock Exchange. It also sanctioned Russia’s debt, cutting off its access to western financing.
The U.S. has gone after Russia’s ability to fund military contracts and raise new money to attack Ukraine. It also is joining with other nations to put the squeeze on what the Treasury Department calls “influential Russians and their family members in Putin’s inner circle believed to be participating in the Russian regime’s kleptocracy.” The goal, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, is to “begin the process of dismantling the Kremlin’s financial network and its ability to fund destabilizing activity in Ukraine and around the world.”
This first group of sanctions seems carefully targeted to hit Putin’s inner circle without sweeping in the Russian people. By applying pressure gradually, it also maintains leverage to try to dissuade Putin from escalating, which would not be the case if the U.S. threw everything at Russia immediately, leaving Putin no reason to change course. And yet, those sanctions remain on the table. Yellen said, “We continue to monitor Russia’s actions and if it further invades Ukraine, the United States will swiftly impose expansive economic sanctions that will have a severe and lasting impact on Russia’s economy.”
As voting rights activist Rachel Vindman put it: “We’re officially in the ‘Finding Out’ phase and all I can say is FINALLY.”
But not all Americans are on board.
Biden’s strong defense of democracy and pulling together of such a strong international coalition has left Republicans unclear about how to respond. In an interview today with right-wing podcaster Buck Sexton, former president Trump expressed admiration for Putin, saying his move to take over parts of Ukraine was “genius.” “Putin declares a big portion of… Ukraine…as independent…. And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen…. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy.”
Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) responded: “Former President Trump’s adulation of Putin today—including calling him a ‘genius’—aids our enemies. Trump’s interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States.”
Trump is not the only one. There used to be a saying that politics stopped at the water’s edge, meaning that lawmakers presented a unified front to other countries, no matter their partisan differences. So far, Republicans appear to have thrown that idea overboard, trying to use the crisis to attack President Joe Biden, a Democrat. Those Republicans who believe in protecting an international order based on the rule of law are getting around Biden’s reinforcement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and sanctions by accusing him of being weak on Russia.
The House Republicans somewhat nonsensically tweeted a photograph of the president walking away from the podium after his speech with the caption: “This is what weakness on the world stage looks like” (prompting others to ask if he was supposed to turn cartwheels as he left). House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and the leadership of the House Republicans issued a statement claiming that “Biden consistently chose appeasement and his tough talk on Russia was never followed by strong action.”
Others allied with Trump are supporting Putin by suggesting that the U.S. has no business protecting its ally Ukraine from Russian aggression. This is pushing them into what sure looks like a stand against America.
The press secretary for Florida governor Ron DeSantis, for example, tweeted that “the sad fact is that the USA is in no position to ‘promote democracy’ abroad while our own country is falling apart.” She continued: “I can never trust the federal government in any way.” J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for the Senate from Ohio, said, “[T]he Russia–Ukraine border dispute has nothing to do with our national security, no American interest is served by our intervention, and that the obsession with Ukraine from our idiot leaders serves no function except to distract us from our actual problems.” Representative Ronny Jackson (R-TX) called for sanctions, not against Russia but against “senior officials in the Canadian government,” apparently because authorities there have arrested members of the truck convoy shutting down border crossings and cities to protest vaccine mandates for truckers.
Some have gone further, either defending Putin or attacking America outright. Candidate for New York Representative to Congress Andrew McCarthy tweeted: “Putin protects the church, tradition, and Russian culture to an extent that globalists cannot accept…. We deal with far worse governments regularly.” Right-wing commentator Candace Owens went further, actually blaming the U.S. for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “WE are at fault,” she tweeted.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the international coalition against authoritarianism, but it could enable the Republicans to succeed in undermining Biden at home, replacing him with a pro-Russian leader like Trump in 2024. In that case, Putin’s desperate gambit will have worked, strengthening authoritarians around the world.
Meanwhile, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny continues to stand for democracy against the authoritarianism that threatens his life. Putin tried to murder Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok and, when that failed, imprisoned him on trumped-up charges for 2.5 years. Now, Navalny is on trial again for fraud and contempt of court; one prosecution witness has refused to testify, saying he was pressured to testify and the charges are “absurd.” If convicted, the 45-year-old Navalny will face another 10 years in prison.
And yet, today Navalny released a 16-tweet thread calling Putin’s security council a bunch of “dotards and thieves” who are trying “to divert the attention of the people of Russia from real problems—the development of the economy, rising prices, reigning lawlessness.” “How long has it been since you last watched the news on federal channels?” he asked. “It's the only thing I watch now, and I can assure you, there is NO news about Russia there AT ALL. Literally. From the first to the last piece, it's Ukraine—USA—Europe.” “We have everything for powerful development in the 21st century, from oil to educated citizens, but we will lose money again and squander the historical chance for a normal rich life for the sake of war, dirt, lies and [corruption]. “The Kremlin is making you poorer,” he wrote, “not Washington.”