Jan 18, 2022 - World

Senators make bipartisan trip to Ukraine after divisive Russia vote

Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

A bipartisan group of seven U.S. senators met Monday in Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top officials as Ukraine and the West brace for the possibility of an imminent Russian invasion.

Why it matters: The delegation is seeking to project a united front with Ukraine, following a divisive Senate vote on Thursday in which Democrats blocked sanctions Zelensky's government was seeking against the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

What they're saying: "There is and will be bipartisan support" for major sanctions on Russia if a conventional military invasion occurs, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who led the charge against Nord Stream 2 sanctions, told reporters on a briefing call from Kyiv.

  • Other members of the delegation included Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

What to watch: Senators are pushing to move forward this week on new sanctions legislation aimed at deterring Russia, though Democrats and Republicans remain divided over how and when those costs should be imposed.

Driving the news: The Biden administration on Friday accused Russia of planning a potential "false-flag" operation in eastern Ukraine that would serve as a pretext for an invasion.

  • Russia has denied claims that it plans to invade Ukraine, and has said it is waiting for the U.S. and NATO to send written responses to its security demands before deciding the path forward.
  • In a possible sign of what comes next, Russia began emptying out its embassy in Kyiv in early January, the New York Times reported late Monday.

The backdrop: The Ukrainian government had urged senators to vote for the Nord Stream 2 sanctions last week, calling the Putin-backed pipeline "no less an existential threat to our security" than the tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on its border.

  • But the Biden administration lobbied Democrats to vote down the bill, seeking to protect its relationship with Germany as the transatlantic alliance engaged in security talks with Russia.
  • "The fear is that from the outside world, Congress looks hopelessly divided," said Murphy. The senators made the trip in part "to make sure that there wasn't a false impression given by a vote on a very narrow sanction last week."

Between the lines: The senators' trip was partly overshadowed by the return to Kyiv of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is facing charges of treason that he claims are politically motivated.

  • Ukraine has long struggled to undertake anti-corruption and political reforms called for by the West, and experts warn Zelensky's feud with his predecessor could divide the country at a critical moment.
  • Murphy said he raised concerns with Zelensky about "whether this is the right time" for Ukraine to be preoccupied with a "controversial legal case." He declined when pressed by Axios to share more detail.

The bottom line: "If Putin thinks that he's going to walk into central or western Ukraine without a significant fight, then he has fundamentally misread the Ukrainian people and their readiness," Murphy told reporters. "I think I knew that coming in ... but I was confirmed of that belief, having spent the day here."

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