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Pingree and other House progressives rescind a letter calling for direct negotiations with Putin

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, during a walking tour, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, in Waterville, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, during a walking tour, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, in Waterville, Maine.

Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has joined a group of fellow progressive Democrats in retracting their letter to the White House that had encouraged direct negotiations with Russia to end its war against Ukraine.

The letter asked President Joe Biden to pursue a cease fire agreement alongside the administration's ongoing economic and military aid for Ukraine, arguing that not doing so might lead to a protracted war with "both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks."

But it was quickly criticized by fellow Democrats and Ukrainian officials for the appearance of appeasement toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and an invasion that Ukrainian leaders say is designed to erase their sovereignty and identity.

The letter was also sent amid threats that Republicans might slash aid to Ukraine if they're able to take control of the House in the midterm elections.

In a statement, Pingree said her support for Ukraine is “absolute and unshakeable” and that she would never presume to force Ukraine to negotiate with a monstrous dictator like Putin.

"Vladimir Putin cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith,” she said. “Like all Americans, I abhor the threat of nuclear conflict, a threat emanating solely from Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. The United States must take whatever steps necessary to avoid the unleashing of nuclear weapons, but the fastest way to achieving the end of this war is by supporting brave Ukraine to defeat and expel Russia.”

It's unclear when or why Pingree signed the letter, which reportedly had been circulating since June. It was sent to the White House Monday and retracted 24 hours later by the Progressive Caucus – a move that Pingree said she supported in a tweet.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who leads the Caucus, said the letter was "released by staff without vetting." In a statement, Jayapal also said the letter had been wrongly conflated with recent comments from House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., warning that the GOP might scale back support for Ukraine if they take control of the House.

“The proximity of these statements created the unfortunate appearance that Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted for every package of military, strategic, and economic assistance to the Ukrainian people, are somehow aligned with Republicans who seek to pull the plug on American support," Jayapal said.

Pingree has joined other Democrats in backing Ukrainian aid packages and military support. She also clashed with her Republican challenger, Ed Thelander, when he suggested during a recent debate hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald that Russia was emboldened to invade Ukraine after the U.S.'s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.

Pingree agreed that the Afghanistan pullout was poorly executed, but she said former President Donald Trump's frequent praise of Putin had done far more to undercut U.S. credibility.

"Listen, I lived through four years of the Trump administration and if we lost any respect it was when a man (Trump) believed we should not be in the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), who didn't understand or treat any of our allies with respect," she said. "And who treated our non-allies like Putin, and the head of North Korea, as if they were his friends and they wrote him letters every day. Look, he (Trump) helped us get into this situation by being soft on Putin."

Thelander agreed that Putin is an "evil man," but it's unclear whether or not he supports continued military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. The former Navy SEAL suggested in a statement Wednesday that the Biden Administration's support had come at great cost domestically.

He said the Biden Administration had sent the "equivalent of the entire annual Russian military budget in eight months" with "no accountability and with no metric for success," yet U.S. Department of Defense estimates peg assistance provided this year at $18.2 billionand the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, estimates that the Russian military budget was $60 billion in 2021.

Thelander also claimed Pingree was "playing the hawk" to further her political aspirations.

Congress authorized a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine in May. Democrats unanimously backed the assistance. It was opposed by 11 Republican Senators and 57 House members.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.