Republicans sharpen their message on Ukraine

Immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, political debate in the United States unfolded freely. Democrats and some Republicans lined up behind President Biden, presenting what was once seen as a traditional show of unity in crisis. Other Republicans have called Biden weak and insufficiently tough on Russia. In perhaps the strangest twist, other Republicans, including Donald Trump, appeared to sympathize with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Now the leaders of the Republican Party are trying to contain it.

Mike Pence will say on Friday that “there is no place in this party for Putin apologists,” according to excerpts from a speech the former vice president will deliver at a Republican National Committee retreat. The remarks could be aimed at Trump, who called Putin “very shrewd” and called his assault “genius,” and it would be the second time in recent weeks that Pence has berated the former president and possible White House rival.

Other Republicans have tried to focus party criticism on Biden, linking the crisis to gas prices that have soared to a national average of nearly $4 a gallon.

Top Republican senators have hammered Biden all week, criticizing the limits his administration has placed on oil and gas leases and his cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. On Friday, 25 Republican governors joined them, calling on Biden to “reverse policy and restore America’s energy independence.”

“We can protect our national energy security and sell to our friends rather than buy from our enemies – especially Russia,” the governors’ statement said. “The people of our states cannot afford another peak at the gas pump, and our allies cannot afford to be held hostage to Putin’s tyranny and aggression.”

Although some aspects of the Republican critique crumble on closer scrutiny, the newly coordinated message unifies the right after the heated intramural debate over Putin. And with inflation soaring, linking Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine to his domestic woes could prove to be a powerful argument with voters come fall.

That could help Republicans return to power next year. The danger, say foreign policy experts, is that a war in the heart of Europe, with sweeping geopolitical implications, will become another partisan squabble.

“It’s like foreign policy is a blank screen onto which we project all of our internal divisions,” said Brian Katulis, co-editor of The Liberal Patriot, a website focused on national security policy. “As if the Ukrainians were just props in our own political history.”

Publicly and privately, former Trump administration officials have lent their advice to Republicans in Washington. In a closed-door meeting of several dozen House conservatives this week, Robert O’Brien, a former national security adviser, answered questions for an hour as he urged lawmakers to back measures more aggressive against Russia.

One of the factors causing concern, several Republican aides said, was the voice of Ukrainians themselves.

“Oil prices are skyrocketing, and in a weird way Russia is profiting from its own invasion,” Maryan Zablotskyy, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told us. “Their government should be deprived of any revenue.”

By focusing on Russian oil, Republicans are deepening a Democratic divide. The White House opposes a ban on Russian oil and gas imports into the United States, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she “strongly agrees. Ban it.

Seven Democrats are backing a new energy sanctions bill promoted by Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But leading Democrats — including Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Majority Leader — have yet to sign.

Republicans are threatening to force the bill to be introduced next week unless Schumer relents.

He might have little choice. Other influential Democrats have signaled their support. “It infuriates me to think that we are dependent on Russian gas and oil,” Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois told CNN on Thursday. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia spoke out in favor of a ban on Friday, his office said.

Republicans are pushing for even more aggressive measures, such as so-called secondary sanctions against foreign institutions that do business with Russia, in addition to cutting off the Kremlin’s sources of hard currency from commodity sales. And they are calling for an unrestrained defense of Ukraine, even as administration officials signal pessimism about Kyiv’s ability to withstand a Russian attack.

In his Friday remarks, Pence is expected to call on Biden to “sanction all financial institutions in Russia.”

The idea of ​​such sanctions, as Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, argued last week, would be to “force the world to choose between doing business with Russia or the states -United”.

“We’re kind of behind the game here,” said Rich Goldberg, a former director of the National Security Council under Trump and a leading architect of the Iran sanctions effort as a longtime aide. date of the Congress. “Every lost hour is time we never get back.”

Biden administration officials say they have been aggressive — and they point to an unprecedented series of steps the United States and its allies have taken within days.

In retaliation for invading Ukraine, Western countries hit Russia with a long list of sanctions and restrictions. They beat the Russian economy and punished its currency, the rouble. They banned Russia from importing key technologies. They even go after the yachts of the businessmen of Putin’s entourage.

“We are ensuring that this war of choice is a strategic failure for Vladimir Putin,” said a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak officially.

White House officials liken the sanctions to a boa constrictor stifling the Russian economy, with pressure mounting in response to the Kremlin’s escalating measures.

“They’re not meant to max out at the start,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary. “They’re durable and long-lasting, and they’re meant to be in a hurry.”

The administration has withheld some measures so it can increase pressure on Moscow if necessary, but has so far resisted oil and gas sanctions.

“Obviously there are areas where we can go to have an even greater impact,” the senior administration official said. “All options remain on the table.”

According to current and former officials, the problem facing the White House is one of timing. How long can Ukraine hold out? Can sanctions affect Putin’s calculations fast enough – if at all – to make a difference on the battlefield? And how can the administration juggle all of this in the midst of a stormy election season, with consumer prices rising at the fastest rate in 40 years?

“Look, there’s still a reasonable possibility that there will be a bank run and the whole Russian economy will collapse next Wednesday,” said Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury Department official. “But the pace of sanctions is not as fast as the pace of war.”

On Politics regularly features work by photographers from The Times. Here’s what Sarahbeth Maney told us about capturing the image above:

“It was my first time photographing the State of the Union, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew to keep an eye out for First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, and special guests seated in his area.

When I leaned over the balcony to see who the guests were, the first person I noticed was 13-year-old Joshua Davis. He stood out for me because he was the only child in a group of adults. My first thought was, “Wow, this kid is really brave – especially for sitting between the first lady and the second gentleman.”

I took this photo during the part of President Biden’s speech when he announced it was Joshua’s birthday the day before, affectionately calling him “buddy”. He went on to say, “For Joshua, and for the other 200,000 young people with type 1 diabetes, let’s cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month so everyone can afford it.”

I think the emotion on everyone’s faces and the extension of the first lady’s outstretched hand to kiss Joshua captures how memorable this day will be for him.

Thanks for reading. Well see you tomorrow.

— Blake and Leah

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Something you want to see more? We would love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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